Police Battle Violent Drug Gangs in Rio

Police Battle Violent Drug Gangs in Rio

By MICHAEL ASTOR Associated Press Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) – The heavily armed police patrolling the narrow alleys of the Morro de Dende shantytown stand out like an occupying army in their own city.

Some 500 police have been occupying the favela, as the shantytowns are known here, since Wednesday to try to keep the peace and hunt down gang members responsible for the deaths of at least 12 people the day before.

“We’re here to suffocate the drug gangs and combat them without truce,” police Col. Pedro Paulo da Silva said. “It’s a war here.”

The killings and subsequent police operation serve to highlight the growing power of drug gangs who have long controlled the city’s favelas as if they were a state within a state.

On Tuesday night, a power struggle, sparked by the arrest Sunday of gang leader Ronaldo Souza Costa, left 12 people dead in a bloody shoot out – a gruesome body count, even by the city’s elevated standards.

Rio de Janeiro has one of the world’s highest murder rates with around 50 homicides per 100,000 residents; in the favela the murder rate is triple that.

While the gang members fought it out, police surrounded the shantytown but waited until morning to enter.

Once inside, they found 12 bodies, nine of them shot execution style at close range and left in a van. Five other people were killed in drug-related violence around the city the same night.

An uneasy peace appeared to be holding with the presence of the police, but many of the local residents seem as wary of police as they are of the drug gangs.

“Residents trust the drug dealers more than the police. The police come in shooting and for them everyone is a drug dealer. At least, the drug dealers are people we know, whom we’ve grown up with,” said a 24-year-old favela dweller who declined to be identified.

Residents say the drug gangs even mete out their own brutal form of justice, with the gangs making sure that no one robs from anyone else here and if they rob they die.

Drug dealers distribute toys for Christmas and distribute milk to mothers and ice cream to children; they also invite people to the funk dances they hold most weekends.

About a fifth of the city’s population, or more than 1 million people, live in the favelas, which sprang up over the last century as poor people looking for a place to live were forced higher and higher up the city’s steep hillsides.

Over the years, the crude mud and stick shacks made way for hovels built from exposed brick and concrete; tin roofs gave way to shingles.

For many years, the favelas occupied a romantic place in the city’s lore, which depicted them as poor but happy places where samba and carnival were born.

That romantic notion began to change in the 1970s with the arrival of a thriving cocaine trade and lack of a police presence.

Today, the drug gangs posses arsenals similar to those of small armies.

During their occupation of the Morro de Dende, da Silva and his men uncovered a network of tunnels and a hidden barracks filled with bunk beds where the gangs drug soldiers apparently lived.

On several occasions, like the United Nations’ Earth Summit here in 1992 and this year’s carnival celebrations, the army has been called in to keep the drug violence from spilling over into the city streets.

But more often, the battle is fought with all the characteristics of a low-grade guerrilla conflict – drug dealers killed here, a police car strafed by automatic weapon fire there.

After years of trying to ignore the favelas or sweep them under the rug, the city has changed course and is trying to make its presence felt. “We are no longer trying to remove the favelas, what we are doing now is trying to incorporate them into the city,” municipal housing secretary Solange Amaral said in a recent interview.

The city is paving over the muddy streets with concrete and installing crude sewer systems and other basic amenities.

Rocinha, the city’s largest favela, recently was designated a neighborhood. It has city buses running through it, two banks and even an ice cream stand.

But at night, Rocinha’s main street turns into an open-air drug bazaar with the dealers openly flaunting their shiny, heavy caliber pistols and toting automatic weapons over their shoulders.

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