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Brazzil - Crime - February 2004
 

Brazil: Rio's War of the Drug Lords

In anticipation of war for the favela's drug trade, Rocinha's
drug-traffickers are currently recruiting soldiers. They have asked
owners of vehicles with tinted windows to remove them, so they
can monitor who enters and leaves the favela. They have also
recommended that residents keep off the street after 10 pm.

Gabe Ponce de León


Last week, Brazil rejoiced in the four Oscar nominations received by City of God, Fernando Mierelles' gruesome depiction of gang wars in the favela—a shanty-town, often occupying a hillside—bearing the name of the film's title. Meanwhile, in Rio de Janeiro a real-life drama, of a magnitude far greater, appears inevitable in Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela.

Rocinha, owing to its singular immensity, is often referred to as the "the city within the city." It spreads out along western slopes of the famous Two Brothers Mountain, on the northeastern fringe of the upscale São Conrado neighborhood. Like Corcovado or Sugar Loaf, Rocinha's colossal sprawl is a highly-recognizable feature of Rio de Janeiro's landscape.

In recent years, the estimated 250,000 inhabitants of Brazil's largest favela have lived in a stable peace, under the benevolent iron fist of the drug lord Luciano Barbosa da Silva, known by his moniker, Lulu. Now a vanquished drug lord, intent on returning to his former glory, is threatening the calm.

It all began when Eduíno Eustáquio de Araújo Filho, known as Dudu, who commanded Rocinha in the mid-1990s, escaped from prison, by the front entrance, on January 17. Soon afterward, leaders from the various favelas dominated by the criminal organization, Comando Vermelho, or Red Phalanx, congregated and called for an invasion of Rocinha to be spearheaded by Dudu, after Lulu refused to relinquish control. At stake is Rocinha's lucrative drug trade, whose worth police estimate at 10 million reals per week.

The police believe that Lulu, who is 23 years-old, fell out of favor with the other Comando Vermelho leaders following the arrest of Jorge Alexandre Candido Maia, an associate of Brazil's most notorious drug-trafficker, Luiz Fernando da Costa, known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or Freddie Seaside. It is thought that Lulu, fearing betrayal, facilitated his arrest.

Dudu is loathed in Rocinha and residents believe it would be difficult for him to reclaim his old turf. The police captured Dudu, 24 years-old, with the assistance of members of the community in 1997.

"Dudu is an animal and people here are terrified of him" one student said. "Everybody heard stories about him raping girls and such. There was one story about him burning alive a seven year-old boy for stealing. He would screw over anybody, it didn't matter if you're a good person or not."

Dudu could launch an invasion of Rocinha from the Vidigal favela, which occupies the other side of the mountain. Several years back, would-be invaders from Vidigal were repelled during a bloody, hour-long battle. A war in Rocinha could entail vans of armed gangsters traveling along some of the city's vital highways to attack the favela.

Also looming is the specter of disruption on the major highway that runs by Rocinha, connecting the upscale, mostly residential Barra da Tijuca to the South Zone and downtown of the city.

Police Role

The police are under pressure to act assertively to prevent what would be a highly explosive confrontation at the heart of the city. In Rocinha, the sound of firecrackers exploding—a warning signal of police encroachment—gunshots, and helicopters hovering overhead are now commonplace.

On February 8, a rare nighttime offensive left three innocent people dead or seriously wounded. Bullet holes in walls and shattered windows were ubiquitous in Rocinha's lower regions where the bulk of the fighting took place.

"I was coming home from work at [a hotel] in Copacabana and I had to wait, with a lot of other people, for over an hour [outside Rocinha] until around midnight when the battle ended and I could return home safely" recalled one woman. "Rocinha has not been this dangerous in a very long time."

"That shootout was the worst I can remember" said a 35 year-old shopkeeper who has lived his entire life in Rocinha. "I have seen some bad things around here, but never such an intensity of gunfire. The police don't accomplish anything and they put innocent people in danger by shooting all over the place. They only come in to tell the public that they are doing something. The reason the drug-traffickers run things here is because the police left. If they want to do something productive, they should come back and stay for 24 hours a day."

Most residents are deeply skeptical of police actions and on February 9 over 200 residents streamed into one of the favelas main streets to plead for peace, and protest against innocent deaths that result from police incursions.

In anticipation of war for the favela's drug trade, Rocinha's drug-traffickers are currently recruiting soldiers in the community. They have asked owners of vehicles with tinted windows to remove them, so they can monitor who enters and leaves the favela. They have also recommended that residents keep off the street after 10 PM until the situation is resolved.

Despite the climate of tension in the favela, for the most part, Rocinha's inured residents go about their normal activities.

"For a long time it had been very calm here in Rocinha and we have made a lot of progress, especially economically" said a 22 year-old man. "Now people are very concerned, but we go on with our lives. You try to avoid certain streets, like the ones where drugs are sold, because that is where shootouts are most likely to occur. But people here are tough. There might be a shootout on one street, and a couple streets away, business as usual."


Gabe Ponce de León is an American, but has been involved in the community in Rocinha for several years and has a photography studio there. Comments are welcome at gabepdl@aol.com


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