Brazil slum drug war to continue

2010-11-29 16:10

Rio de Janeiro - Brazilian law enforcement agencies celebrated victory on Monday after an anti-drug raid on a sprawling Rio slum, but a state official warned that "a battle was won, but not the war".

With Rio's World Cup and Olympic hosting duties looming, some 2 600 paratroopers, marines and elite police backed up by helicopters and armoured personnel carriers led a pre-dawn assault on Sunday on the traffickers' bastion of Grota, a lawless city within a city with a population of 400 000.

Grota is just one of 15 favelas that make up the Complexo do Alemao, a sprawling maze of slums in northern Rio. And there was no mention of the arrests of hundreds of traffickers claimed to be the target of the operations.

However, police said they seized 40 tons of marijuana, packaged for delivery, from several houses in Grota. Police formed a long human chain, snaking down narrow, steep streets, passing the drug along to awaiting trucks in a main street below.

Another 200kg of cocaine were also seized in the area, media reports said.

"This conquest is a decisive step forward for our public safety policy," Rio state Governor Sergio Cabral told TV Globo. "Today, we are turning a page in Rio's history."


Yet despite shouts of victory and the soaring rhetoric of senior officials, it remains to be seen whether the city, which is preparing to host the 2016 Olympics and matches in the 2014 soccer World Cup, has indeed been made safer.

"This is our D-Day," military police spokesperson Colonel Lima Castro told reporters, referring to the historic allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. "We will return this community to the people of Rio de Janeiro."

Rio's Security Secretary Jose Beltrame later on Sunday vowed that after the Complexo do Alemao, security forces would continue flushing out criminals from other favelas around the city.

"We'll move on to Rocinha and Vidigal," he said, referring to large slum districts south of the city home to more than 150 000 people.

"We've won one battle, but not the war" against Rio's drug traffickers, he said.

Authorities did not have numbers of deaths, injuries or arrests in Sunday's offensive.

Up to 600 traffickers involved

A third of Rio's six million population live in slums perched on its steep hillsides. Most favelas are no-go areas for the rest of the city's residents, who fear the gangs and criminals.

The Complexo do Alemao is the home turf of the Red Command organised crime group and on Thursday police said they had squared off and exchanged fire with an estimated 500 to 600 drug traffickers.

Sunday's fighting in Garota's narrow alleyways and twisting dead-end streets capped almost a week of a strikes intended at making Rio - a perennial poster child of crime - a safer place.

Compared to Thursday, the authorities said resistance on Sunday was far weaker as security forces slowly tightened their grip with sharpshooters posted on high buildings and soldiers encircling the slum.

"We did not have that hard of a time because police choppers were overhead backing us up with firepower," police commander Mario Sergio Duarte said.

House to house searches were carried out in Grota, where soldiers and police were combing the area searching for anyone injured in the crackdown - which has killed 35 people over six days - and for weapons and drugs.

Strategically important

Trouble with the slums and organised crime is nothing new in Rio, but there is a new sense of urgency since Brazil has emerged as a global economic and political player.

The seaside city will also soon be very much in the world spotlight as it plays host to matches in the 2014 World Cup and then the 2016 Olympic Games.

"We will do whatever it takes so that the good guys defeat those who prefer to live lives of crime," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said earlier in the week.

Authorities poured into Grota at on Sunday morning and by that afternoon military police said they had gained control of the strategically important slum, and by extension the whole of the Complexo do Alemao.

They placed Brazilian and civilian police flags over the territory as a sign of their authority - but made no claims to have apprehended the hundreds of drug traffickers they claimed to be hunting and who apparently eluded their net.

Beltrame, however, felt sure the wrongdoers would eventually fall under arrest.

"These criminals are disarmed, have no homes and no money" and can't go very far.