Correction to This Article
The print and earlier online versions of this story incorrectly referred to Rio de Janeiro as the capital of Brazil. The country's capital is Brasilia.

To Rid Slums of Drug Gangs, Police in Rio de Janeiro Try War Tactics

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 6, 2009; 5:45 AM

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan. 5 -- From the school balcony, Marcos Cunha had an unobstructed view of Santa Marta, the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood that had been giving his fellow police officers so much trouble.

Looming above him was the rocky peak that police once rappelled down to raid the shantytown. At eye level sat the bullet-pocked Church of the Nazarene, where drug dealers had fired at oncoming police on another day. And spread below him were the clustered shacks and tangled wires of this largely ungoverned place on a hillside of the city.

"They probably thought we were going to leave like usual," Cunha said from the school, which has become the headquarters of Rio's latest experiment in urban policing. "But this time we're staying."

The police have regularly launched large operations in Brazil's favelas, or slums, in their battle against drug gangs over the years, but authorities say the occupation of Santa Marta, a relatively small, contained neighborhood, is part of a new approach, a pilot project for the future of crime fighting in this violent city. Brazilian police officers are attempting counterinsurgency tactics similar to those used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq -- setting up small bases occupied around the clock inside violent neighborhoods, developing intelligence by living among their adversaries, and using government funds to rebuild broken areas and generate goodwill.

"Santa Marta is like a laboratory for policing a conflict area," said Antônio Roberto Cesário de Sá, a senior official in the office of the public security secretary of Rio de Janeiro. "The idea is to rescue a territory that until now has belonged to a drug-dealing gang."

But this approach -- heavy police presence during peacetime in a major city -- has drawn intense criticism from those who say it is an abuse of power and curtails residents' freedom. In this and similar operations in other favelas in Rio, police have banned motorcycle-taxis -- a vehicle often used for distributing drugs. Residents say police have broken in doors and roughed people up, shut down neighborhood dance parties, cut off illegal TV and Internet connections, and imposed de facto curfews.

"The problem is that they act in this aggressive way, focusing on the poor areas, as if that's where the real criminals are actually living," said Rafael Dias, an investigator with Justiça Global, a human rights organization in Brazil. "The people in these neighborhoods do not have safety now. They have an occupation."

These are familiar challenges across Latin America, where underfunded and overtaxed police forces cannot stem the criminality corroding many major cities, particularly those with a thriving drug trade. Problems of corruption in the ranks and distrust among citizens only make law enforcement more difficult in this region.

About 10,000 people live in Santa Marta, a warren of 1,000 to 2,000 shoddy houses threaded with narrow concrete paths and perched on a hillside so steep that many residents ride a tram to get up the slope. About 50 to 60 drug dealers operate here, residents estimate, and the graffiti of the gang in charge -- "CV" for Comando Vermelho, or Red Command -- scar walls. Those are modest numbers, given the scope of the sprawling city -- an advantage for a police operation that employed just 150 men in the initial push. The small favela also has few entrances and is bordered by jungle, rather than blending into other slums.

"In the other communities, we don't have the manpower to get into the area, expel the drug dealers and keep the police there," Sá said. "We need to increase the number of police officers. The population of Rio is too big, the favelas are growing too fast."

Sá estimated that Rio de Janeiro state, which now has 38,000 policemen, needs 10,000 new officers to effectively combat crime in the city and replicate the Santa Marta-style operation in other, larger favelas. But whether that is a model that deserves replication remains in dispute.

Across town in City of God, a favela made famous by the 2002 movie of the same name, another large-scale police operation is underway, and the mood seems mostly grim. The streets are quieter than usual, and some of the stores along a fetid canal inside the neighborhood have shut down for lack of customers. Firecrackers break the quiet, set off to warn of approaching police patrols. Police stand on corners once reserved for the drug trade, and residents eye them warily.


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