They are calling it: “D Day for the war against drug trafficking”. “Rio’s War”. “Elite Squad 3”. Rio de Janeiro residents are used to living with low-intensity warfare in their own backyard, as gangs and police duke it out in the city’s favelas (slums). But this Thursday was like nothing residents had ever seen before. They say it’s the largest such operation in Rio’s history and there is likely more to come.
After days of violence, 500 officers from Rio’s police force pushed their way into the Vila Cruzeiro on Thursday. The officers were backed by six armored tanks lent from the marines—the first time this type of high-powered machinery was used in such an operation. Knowing they couldn’t hold back the tanks, hundreds of gang members fled from Cruzeiro into the neighboring Complexo do Alemão, actually a mass of 15 favelas and home to a little over 57,000 residents.
Both Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemão, in Northern Rio de Janeiro have been strongholds of Rio’s narco-trafficking gangs, at a time when their territory has been quickly disappearing.
For many years, the fight between the gangs and police was at a relative, albeit violent, standstill. Payoffs. Skirmishes. Low intensity warfare. They knew their territory. Where the Police Battalion of Special Operations (BOPE) was able to kick the traffickers out, clandestine milicias sprouted up. Organized largely by plainclothes police and firemen, these paramilitary groups took control of the region, charging their own bribes in exchange for service and protection. According to a 2007 report by Amnesty International, at the time milicia controlled 92 of Rio’s 1000 favelas.
With the World Cup (2014) and Olympics (2016) on the way, however, the city police force stepped up operations. Like a scene out of the 2007 Brazilian film "Elite Squad" (Tropa de Elite), the police began to work to “pacify Rio”, by eradicating the gangs from the favelas. In 2008, special operations ran the narco-traffickers out of Santa Marta, and set up the first Pacifying Police Unit (UPP-Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora), just up the hill from the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo. The UPP are essentially police units set up in poor communities, with the goal of ensuring that the gangs don’t return.
There are now 13 across the city, many next to the middle-upper class neighborhoods in the Zona Sul or Southern Rio de Janeiro. More are planed. To an extent, they have been a success. These neighborhoods are free of the gangs (and it appears milicia, although only one UPP so far has been set up in an area formerly controlled by the milicia). They are now also experiencing a housing market boom. In Santa Marta, for example, prices have doubled. Unfortunately, this means that many families that were renting, and who stuck it out through the worst, are now are being pushed out by gentrification because they can't afford to pay the rent.
Meanwhile, the gang members had to go somewhere. Violence in the streets increased. Others traveled North to the poorer end of town.
Last Sunday, in what appears to be an order from imprisoned gang leaders in retaliation to the construction of the UPPs, several cars were hijacked and buses torched. The incidents ignited a wave of violence across the city, which according to O Globo, has culminated in 34 deaths and 192 arrests since Sunday. Nearly a hundred cars, buses and vans were set ablaze. 150 schools were temporarily closed and university classes suspended. Thirteen prisoners in Catanduvas Maximum Security Prison in Parana have been transferred to the state of Northern state of Rondônia. Authorities in Rio de Janeiro have asked to transfer another eight prisoners out of state.
The Rio police department now says an attack on the Complexo do Alemão is inevitable, and will take place within the next six months. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim has promised to support the raid with 800 troops from the armed forces.
What is going on? What changed?
Analysts in today’s O Globo compared Rio to the Middle East. Compared the gangs to terrorists and Mexico’s drug cartels. But Rio’s narco-traffickers are nothing new. They have been around for decades. At the heart of the question are the UPPs and the Olympics.
“The UPPs are a project to militarily retake certain areas of interest to the city,” Marcelo Freixo, PSOL representative to the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, told Agencia NP this week. “This is not done to eradicate the drug trafficking, it is to have military control of some strategic areas for the Olympic city that they envision.
Freixo should know, he is a human rights lawyer and the man largely behind a massive investigation into the milicias, which sent 275 people to prison, including police and elected officials.
Last year, along with the creation of the first UPPs, under the pretext of environmental preservation, 10-Foot high containment walls were built around several poor neighborhoods. Sound barriers were recently erected alongside the major highway from Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport to the city center, blurring the view of the poor communities just beyond the brightly colored panels.
“The UPPs as well as the acoustic barriers and the walls around the favelas are part of the Olympic project. A project for a city that is going to be very exclusive, a city for the few,” said Freixo, then referring to the recent violence. “We know that Rio is going to go through these problems. Where you build an Olympic city, you are also creating non-Olympic cities around it.”
Those looking for a little context, should check out the Brazilian films, Elite Squad 1 & 2.