Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Drugs, Guns, Gangs and Police – a Violent Mix in the ‘Favelas’

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 30 2009 (IPS) - Janaína*, who lives in Jacarezinho, one of the most violent “favelas” or shantytowns in this Brazilian city, describes the control that the “movement” – the local drug mafia – exercises over the neighbourhood and local residents.

“I can sleep with my doors open because no one comes in to steal,” the woman, who lives with her two young sons, tells IPS. The local drug gang stands guard over the area, preventing robbery, rape and other crimes within the community.

“The problem is not the drug traffickers, but the police, when they come into the favela,” says Janaína

But at the same time, she expresses her fear that the “movement” would “necklace” her – a typical gang punishment in which a burning rubber tire is slung around a person’s chest and arms – if they found out she was talking to the press.

In São João, a favela on the north side of Rio, drug gang look-outs perch on rooftops and at other strategic spots overlooking the entry points to the slum, just a few metres from police who are patrolling the area.

Michel Misse, the head of the Centre for Studies on Citizenship, Conflict and Urban Violence (NECCVU) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says this is an illustration not only of the corruption of police who are bribed to turn a blind eye, but of the power of the drug gangs that effectively govern many of the city’s favelas.

The drug gangs, in turn, forge “mutual support networks” with heavily armed youth gangs, the analyst explains to IPS.

Drug trafficking, which was booming in Brazil in the 1990s, is slightly on the decline today. Nevertheless, drug-related urban violence continues to claim a heavy death toll, with murder being the main cause of death for Brazilian men between the ages of 15 and 44.

And while Rio de Janeiro was still celebrating its successful bid to host the 2016 Olympics, police launched an offensive against drug gangs in a number of favelas this month after a police helicopter was shot down. At least 47 people were killed in the resultant clashes between criminal gangs and the police.

Misse says there are at least three main criminal gangs that control, besides the “bocas de fumo” or drug-dealing points, other illegal businesses like the distribution of bottled cooking gas, cable TV service and transportation.

“These factions each involve a number of youth gangs that control the ‘bocas de fumo’ in the different neighbourhoods in the ‘morros’ (the hills covered by the favelas),” he says.

Although these structures have existed for at least 30 years, “intermittent conflicts” began to occur when one of the large criminal gangs, or “factions,” tried to establish a monopoly over the market, running into resistance from the other factions and the police, he explains.

“The police transformed the drug trade into an enemy, even though the main enemy is not drug-dealing, but the way trafficking has served as the financial foundation of heavily armed gangs,” says Misse.

The analyst, who questions the use of the term “war,” because what is happening has neither ideology nor treaties, compares drug-dealing among middle-class sectors – which he says “causes no problems” – with the drug trade that does cause violence, in his analysis: drug trafficking by gangs fighting turf wars.

“Drug sales can exist without this territorial-based strategy. But when you ‘territorialise’ petty drug-dealing, you have to control the territory, which also means controlling the people living there,” he says.

The drug gangs are armed with weapons like AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, hand grenades, and even anti-aircraft missiles, “thanks to their drug profits,” says Misse.

“There is a perverse relationship between organisations like these youth gangs and the illegal markets, powerful weapons, and a fourth ingredient: the existence of corrupt police who give them protection,” says the analyst.

Easy access to weapons is one of the points that has been emphasised by analysts since the latest outbreak of violence in Rio de Janeiro.

The armed confrontations began this month when one of the big criminal gangs invaded the territory of a rival faction, in a turf war over ‘bocas de fumo’.

These groups are involved in an “arms race” facilitated by smuggling of weapons by sea, at night through Guanabara Bay, or by land from Paraguay, according to sociologist Antônio Rangel Bandeira, head of the arms control programme in Viva Rio, the biggest NGO active in the city’s slums.

Calling the outbreak of violence “our 9/11” – referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States – , Rio de Janeiro state secretary of security José Mariano Beltrame complained about the lack of aid that the state and local governments receive from the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for fighting drug trafficking, a federal crime.

He also called for better coordination with the federal police and armed forces.

Misse agrees on the need for these things, as well as improved, coordinated intelligence.

“Most of the weapons come through Guanabara Bay, but we don’t have a coast guard,” he points out. “Another portion comes in by road, mainly from Paraguay, which is more like an arms depot, because the weapons are purchased in the United States and other countries.”

There are other priorities as well, he says, such as “modernising the outdated police force, whose work is still fundamentally based on repression rather than information and intelligence,” he says.

A mere two percent of armed robberies in Rio de Janeiro are investigated and brought to trial. And only 15 percent of all murders are reported, and just 10 percent go to trial.

“That means 90 percent of homicides in Rio de Janeiro go unpunished; or to put it another way, a person’s chance of killing someone and getting away with it is 90 percent,” he says.

According to statistics from the security forces themselves, the Rio police force is one of the world’s most violent, with around 1,000 people a year killed in incidents classified as shootouts with the police.

The Brazilian military police, meanwhile, which have a “militaristic culture,” got involved in law enforcement during the 1964-1985 dictatorship.

Prior to that, the military police were only involved in maintaining public order during elections, strikes or demonstrations.

But in the 1970s, with the rise in crime and changing crime patterns, “the military police were pulled out of the barracks and began to function as a day-to-day policing force without having received the necessary training for that job,” says Misse.

This, he says, is what led to the strategy of violent police “invasions” of the favelas, which combined with corruption generated a culture of fear and hatred of the police, and a general refusal to cooperate with them.

“Local residents are thus caught in the crossfire”: they fear and mistrust the police, while being afraid of and mistrusting the drug gangs “if they collaborate with the police,” says the analyst.

But he adds that the new policy of community policing in the favelas has got off to a “promising start.”

“Under this initiative, the police are no longer invading the morros. They carry out an operation to remove the gangs, and they take the place that the gangs used to occupy,” he explains.

The new policy involves the installation of Pacification Police Units (UPP) in the slums, as well as a series of actions to modify the neighbourhoods, such as widening some streets “to provide easier access to both local residents and the police, or social policies that target the young, to keep them from being drawn into the drug trade,” he says.

According to Misse, the unplanned nature of the favelas, which are often connected from hill to hill through a maze of pathways and narrow alleyways, makes it easy for the gangs to hide, giving them another source of strength.

* Not her real name.

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