A dispute over drug trafficking territory in Rio de Janeiro has intensified lately, leaving in its wake unprecedented acts of violence, such as the downing of a police helicopter in the northern zone of the city on October 17. Three policemen died and another two were injured. This event has drawn the attention of the international media, who are raising the issue of public security for the 2016 Olympics to be held in Rio.
Police response to the attack has been predictable: more repressive, violent force in the favelas (shantytowns). In this war between the police and the drug traffickers, 24 people have been killed. Among the dead are police, drug traffickers, and, as the city government has just admitted, three innocent bystanders.
The mainstream media’s coverage of the helicopter attack seems to have given the police the green light for the use of excessive violence, such as the practices of “exterminations” and the invasion of houses without any warrants.
The violence in Rio has gained national attention, and Brazil’s Minister of Justice, Tarso Genro, has already offered to send government troops to the city. The state’s governor, Sergio Cabral refused the offer, but accepted instead US$ 50,000 from the National Office for Public Security to help control the situation.
Rio’s own Secretary for Public Security, José Mariano Beltrame, has admitted that there have been executions by the police after the helicopter incident and admitted that innocent people have been killed, but maintained that it is the fault of the drug traffickers.
Among the police who were in the helicopter was Major João Jaques Busnello, who in September killed a young man who was holding a woman hostage. In a later interview, Busnello admitted that he “neutralized” the criminal, and carried around the shell of the bullet that killed the man as a reminder of his “well-aimed shot.”
João Tancredo, president of the Institute on the Development of Human Rights (IDDH), asserts that Rio’s middle class feeds this idea of exterminating the poor, without realizing the inefficacy of such a policy.
“The middle class, misinformed and desperate, begins to believe that extermination is a way to diminish the violence. But they do not realize that this does not resolve anything. For every 20 dead drug traffickers, there are 100 more to take their place. This is because there are no other jobs for these young people.”
In fact, there are also very few jobs in drug trafficking, and there are immense reserves for the positions available. As soon as one of its members die, the gang immediately has a replacement. Statistics from the Complexo do Alemão – a region with a long history of police occupation and violence – confirm this.
With nearly 200,000 inhabitants, only 0.05% of the population are involved in drug trafficking. “You don’t need any more than this to traffic drugs. And there is a very large work force waiting to enter into the business,” said Tancredo.
The mainstream press wrote about the violence in the northern zone of Rio as a dispute over drug trafficking territory between two groups of organized crime, the Comando Vermelho and the Amigos dos Amigos.
According to the press’ story, drug chiefs from the São João favela invaded the neighboring favela Morro dos Macacos. However, there is an ongoing analysis by crime specialists and human rights advocates that these two groups have more symbolic power in the media than they actually do in the actual daily operations of these groups.
The press gives the impression that criminals register themselves with one or the other group, but actually there is very little organization among members on a city-wide level, and much less so on a state-wide level.
“This is more for [the press’] ‘marketing’ than it is something concrete. If they were as organized as they say, they would already have taken control of the whole city. There simply isn’t this kind of organization, it doesn’t exist in reality.
“You often hear, ‘That favela is Comando Vermelho’s,’ or so forth. But what you have really is each favela has its own chief which controls the trafficking for that area. If this other type of organization really existed, these groups could control the city because of the enormous reserves they have in their armies,” said Tancredo.
With the attack on the police helicopter, the Secretary for Security of Rio de Janeiro began a preventive operation in the city involving seven more favelas in the northern zone. But Tancredo thinks that the state has turned a blind eye to the conflicts between drug traffickers in order to retake control of these areas of the city.
The governor already admitted that he knew of some of the drug traffickers intentions of trying to take control of the São João favela. “There is the possibility that the state allowed this to happen so that later they could take up these measures of executions and invasions of houses without warrants. First, let the chaos erupt, then take control of the favelas,” assert Tancredo.
Gizele Martins, 24, lives in one of these favelas in the northern zone. “Life here is not easy. Daily we have to look for a way to survive, to exist, to affirm our own identity and humanity. We need to affirm to ourselves daily that we are still human.”
She goes on to cite as one of the difficulties of daily life the presence of the police. “We suffer terribly when the “caveirões” (police tanks) come on our streets. When they aren’t shooting at us, they are calling us bums, and tell us to run, and if we don’t they will start shooting at us. They tell us they will “rob our souls.”
Recently Martins took part in a peace march in her favela which tried to draw attention to the problem of violence in the neighborhood. In the last four months, three sections of the favela have suffered from the violence caused by drug trafficking.
More than 50 lives have been lost. During the march, they denounced the presence of the tanks, which actually are sometimes rented from the police by the drug traffickers to invade another favela more easily.
Martins went on to say, “Every day we are excluded. Our lives are hard, filled with pain and tears, not taken into account by our politicians, those whom we vote for every four years when they define security policies. We, the poor, are the criminals, the ugly, dirty evil ones. The order of the day is to kill and exterminate those in the favelas as they consider us to be the great problem of society, the dirt of the nation.”
Renato Godoy de Toledo and Claudia Santiago write for Brazilian publication Brasil de Fato.