Pacifying of Rio’s slums

RIO DE JANEIRO – Flanked by officers holding assault rifles, Jose Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s security chief, strolled through the streets of Complexo do Alemao, just days after the police and military had stormed the notoriously dangerous slum and retaken it by force.

It was a historic walk, the first time he had stepped foot in the slum in years, underscoring this city’s newfound willingness to wrest away areas of the city that have been violent refuges for drug gangs for more than three decades.

Residents watched stone-faced as Beltrame passed. No one applauded or rushed to shake the hand of the man who has orchestrated the program to “pacify” Rio’s slums ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Instead, a 54-year-old mother confronted him for several minutes, lecturing him that a Military Police officer had entered her home, pinned her against her kitchen sink and demanded her son’s money.

“My son is an honest person and this is his salary,” she said in an interview. The officer “wanted to take my camera, but I did not let him take my money or my camera. So he took my bananas and ate them as he left.”

Shortly after the Alemao operation, the culmination of a weeklong street battle against drug gangs that claimed dozens of lives across Rio, residents here were viewing the security presence through cautious eyes.

Gone was the initial euphoria when the police entered the community of 120,000 people on November 28, prompting small children to frolic in a former drug trafficker’s rooftop swimming pool. By week’s end, residents had accused the police of dozens of abuses, including robberies and violent entries into their homes as officers scoured the slum for guns, drugs and money.

After a week of searching here and in another slum, the police said they had recovered about 31 tons of marijuana, 314 kilograms of cocaine, well over 400 pistols, rifles, machine guns and grenades, but comparatively little cash: about $68,000. All of the money, moreover, was recovered by the Army and the federal police – Rio’s own forces turned in none – raising broad suspicions of police corruption.

“They have been showing you drugs and arms, but where is the money?” asked Rafael Correia, 22, who works at a furniture store in Alemao. “We had tons of money here. Complexo do Alemao was a money mine. So did the criminals leave here with all that money? Or where is it now?”

Even military officials have expressed concern their soldiers would be “contaminated” by the “culture of corruption” inside Alemao, a high-ranking military officer acknowledged. And despite the community being surrounded by some 2,600 personnel from the police and the military, most of the traffickers somehow escaped, fuelling an investigation into whether officers helped some of them get away.

The aftermath of the operation to retake Alemao, a complex of several slums Beltrame has called “the heart of evil,” has reinforced concerns among analysts and police experts that Governor Sergio Cabral’s “police pacification” program may be achieving only part of what is needed to bring lasting peace to Rio. While the vast majority of Rio’s residents here support the program, which involves taking over the slums and then installing a community police force, little is being done to reform Rio’s notoriously corrupt police officers.

“We are trying to solve the problem of the drug dealers by using the same police that originated the problem in the first place,” said Jose Padilha, who has made three films exploring police abuses in Rio. “We should acknowledge that this is only half a program. The other half is you have to change the police.”

The incursion into Alemao had not been planned for at least several more months. But after drug gangs attacked city buses and cars throughout the city in late November, terrorizing Rio residents, state officials felt the moment was ripe.

Assisted by 17 armored personnel vehicles from the military, security forces took Alemao with surprising ease. No one died in the two-hour operation, the police said, erasing fears of a bloodbath that would further stain Rio’s reputation as one of the most-violent cities in the world.

“It turned out far better than I had hoped,” said Jose Junior, executive coordinator of AfroReggae, a group that works to build youth self-esteem in the slums. He said he tried to persuade gang leaders to surrender before the police and military moved in. “The most optimistic outcome was a bloodbath, the most pessimistic was a genocide,” he said.

Today, it is difficult to walk 15 metres without passing police officers. They roam the uneven streets with rifles and body armour, interrogating residents and doing house-to-house searches. Soldiers wearing red berets guard important entry points, sweating in the sweltering Rio summer heat.

Military Police officers used to walk through Alemao carrying backpacks until police officials, responding to residents’ claims of stealing, instituted a rule recently banning them for all but Elite Squad members.

When under the thumb of drug dealers, residents said they lacked basic services like a post office or fixed telephone lines. Government officials rushed in recently to fill the void, setting up tables to note residents’ health care needs and to find them jobs. Satellite television companies, previously fearful of the “high-risk” community, set up tables along the main avenue.

But the questions around the operation have not faded. Despite having the slum surrounded, more than 400 of 500 drug traffickers escaped, either crawling through a series of sewer tunnels or disguised as religious figures who walked through unguarded exits, the police and residents said.

The police said they were investigating claims by residents that police officers may have driven out top gang leaders in squad cars, perhaps before the military moved into position.

After working his way through the slum, Beltrame explained that complaints “must be carefully checked, and the police must remain in here and exchange information with the community so that we can restore freedom, and guarantee the territory for these people.”

But scepticism remains. “With police or traffickers it is all the same to me today,” said Cosmo Antonio da Silva, 26, who owns a hair salon on the main avenue.