Slums are alternate power structures
By: David A. Smith
Slums are a world of alternate power structures – and when alternative power is threatened, it does not go quietly, as featured in an AP story picked up by Google News:
Brazilian soldiers on patrol in Vila Cruzeiro
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP), November 27, 2010 — The drug gang leader jabs the muzzle of his .556-caliber Sig Sauer assault rifle around as he talks.
Yes, Jogador says emphatically, Rio’s drug gangs are feeling threatened by the biggest police push against them in the city’s history, a Herculean effort to improve security before the 2016 Olympics. The heavily armed criminal gang he helps lead is being driven from long-held turf in the slums, leading to losses in cocaine and marijuana sales.
Waiting for the cops to come: favela drug gang members
Over the years, I’ve written many socioeconomic definitions of slums (see box). Compared with the standard physical definitions (rundown areas characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security), economic definitions do a much better job of capturing the reality, and in particular why slums persist.
Slums do not exist because of gangs, but when slums exist, gangs will use them, and to do this, they must take over the slum.
Who lives up these mean streets?
It’s what the 25-year-old career criminal says next, with a low laugh and a nodding of his head, that strikes at the heart of fears in this seaside city: He says that Rio’s gangs are preparing for a return to the city’s most violent days.
“You take any animal and put it up against the wall,” he says, eyes ablaze, pointing the tip of his Swiss-made weapon toward a whitewashed ledge pocked by bullets. “Its last option is what? To attack.”
Big talk – but with semiautomatic weapons, he can talk himself into a lot of deaths.
A radio attached to his black sports shorts begins squawking wildly. Police have captured a lookout on the edge of the western Rio slum his gang rules.
Organized crime becomes the alternate power structure that invades and garrisons the slums.
Young men with rifles and semiautomatic pistols are scurrying about, preparing for yet another police invasion.
Jogador turns the radio down. It’s hard to tell how much of what he says is bravado and how much is warning, but there is plenty of both.
He is speaking to a journalist, so of course it’s bravado. What else is he going to do?
“Rio de Janeiro is going to get really small,” says Jogador, who agreed to talk on condition he be identified by a nickname police would not know. “Rio de Janeiro is going to tremble.”
In recent weeks, the police in Rio have been coming – and it’s evident they will not stop coming.
Armed men have set up roadblocks in key areas — a highway leading to the international airport, an avenue running by the state government’s headquarters, quiet streets in wealthier neighborhoods — letting loose rifle fire, tossing grenades. More than 100 cars and buses stopped in the dragnets have been set on fire, usually after their occupants fled.
When the gangs flee, they torch
Police responded by invading more than 20 slums, engaging traffickers in massive shootouts, killing at least 25 people, mostly suspected drug gang members, and arresting more than 200.
Authorities now control one of the most fortified slums where traffickers long ruled with impunity, and are preparing to invade another that many fear will ignite an even bloodier battle.
Caught … but for how long?
It will – but what is the choice?
The scenes of urban warfare in Rio on the nightly news bring back memories of 2002, when drug gangs protesting the prison conditions of their incarcerated leaders shut down Rio, a city of 6 million people — twice the size of Chicago. They burned buses, sprayed government buildings with bullets and grenades, and sent foot soldiers out to warn businesses to close. Similar shutdowns went on for months.
Now the three major gangs are preparing for another fight, and according to Jogador, are ready to end their bloody rivalries and join forces against the police. Rio’s top security official and governor acknowledge that the battle is heating up — and that the gangs seem to be unifying.
“These are classic acts of terror, an effort to create and diffuse a sense of insecurity throughout the city,” said Paulo Storani, a security consultant who spent nearly 30 years on the police force and was a captain in an elite Rio unit sent in to clear slums. “The mass robberies, the burning of cars, these are just the beginning of a response by the drug gangs.”
Car torched by the drug gangs
Very simply, the municipal and national governments are taking back parts of their city that had previously been tacitly ceded to the gangs – and in so doing, they are depriving the gangs of revenue.
For two years, police have invaded the slums and installed 13 permanent posts — not much in a squalid sea of more than 1,000 slums, but enough to make a point. The gangs are losing slums and the drug revenues they yield.
That is an expression of the pure economic power dynamics. The gangs use slums as a workplace and captive market.
The fear is that there is a tipping point when the gangs decide it costs less to fight the police than to give up the slums, and that this moment is at hand.
Until they take heavy casualties, that is.
Police invading Alemao favela
Since September, armed men have carried out scores of mass robberies of motorists. The recent episodes are much more frequent than in the past and of a different nature. Few of the cars have been stolen. Instead, they are torched as vivid forms of protest, or motorists are ordered to hand over their keys, stranding the vehicles and clogging traffic.
It’s a basic terror campaign. It cannot be allowed to work.
The gunmen then melt back into the city, leaving behind panic and chaos.
The acolytes of Mars, the god of war, are phobos and demos, fear and panic.
Urban fear coming
The tension is growing as police prepare to go into the largest slums that are the backbone of the gangs’ operations. One, the Alemao complex, surrounds a road that leads to the international airport. On Friday, it was surrounded by police after officers invaded the neighboring Vila Cruzeiro slum and drove armed gangsters from there to Alemao. The other, Rocinha, is on the other side of the city, a sprawling mass of shacks on a route that will connect the main venues of the 2016 Olympics with the rest of the city.
Far from the tourist venues, but close to the corridors of shipping
Eventually law has to out-compete the gangs – and since the gangs know no law but force, the law must meet them with force.
Both are densely packed, creating a human shield for the gang leaders. They are also havens for drug production and serve as lucrative distribution points.
“They are not going to simply leave these areas and hand them over to police,” says Storani. “Losing them would be a huge blow to the infrastructure of the traffickers.”
The crowd of 300 slum residents sits in white plastic chairs neatly aligned on a large concrete slab, chipped and faded blue paint on its surface marking the outlines of a soccer field.
They’re staring at something they’ve never seen: a government official addressing them.
“We are here. Our presence here will remain. The police will no longer leave you. But the police alone cannot win this fight. We need your help.”
The Rio police are in effect trying to reverse the slum’s broken-windows observational behavior – that the law has forsaken the slumdwellers.
Graffiti in Roncinha favela
Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame, in charge of the armed security forces, stares intently back at the crowd, speaking in a staccato cadence, trying to pierce the cloud of doubt.
“We can bring another reality here. That is not a political promise. We have already brought security and social services to other communities,” he says.
It will be a hard fight, and the slumdwellers will be casualties.
Running for safety
The crowd applauds after Beltrame speaks. Behind the claps, however, are worries.
“The devil lives inside this slum. They’ve got to end the misery, the poverty. Look at this place, full of filthiness, just a mess,” says Henrique, a slum resident who only gives his first name for fear that the drug gangs will return. “I hope that God gives these men the strength to change things here, but I don’t have much faith they will.”
There speaks a rational member of the observant herd.
Costa thinks Rio is at a moment of dramatic change.
“We could have one of the scariest scenarios imaginable, that the gangs declare an all-out war and we return to the levels of violence seen in the 1990s, the most violent period of Rio’s history,” says Costa.
Thugs and bullies always threaten escalating harm to those who would oppose them. That threat must always be answered, otherwise society pays protection money forever.
“But we also could have a way out, with the international pressure to improve security before the Olympics, which should bring more money in to combat crime.”
It is a war, and the police will have to sustain it. For this, they will need the citizens’ backing.
Assaulting the urban environment
Back at the slum, Jogador offers no details on whether the recent mass robberies and burning of cars are being ordered by drug gang bosses. He also does not deny it.
It is in his interest not to deny it – he wants maximum terror.
“If they come attacking, we’re going to find a way to make them pay,” he says. “Every action has a reaction.”
Beyond the threats, he offers up some can’t-we-all-just-get-along suggestions, along with doomsday predictions if the UPPs continue.
“I think the World Cup would be a lot more peaceful, the Olympics would be a lot more peaceful, if they stopped invading our slums,” he says. “If they come shooting in our community, where do we have to go?”
It is not your community, sir. You seized it and you terrorize its inhabitants. You have no community, you have never built a community. You exploit the community and keep it in fearful poverty.
Police transport torched in a favela
“We’re going to come over to their side and then things will get difficult for them.”
When bluster and intimidation is all you have, it is what you do.
But he also says he does not think the police will stop, and neither will the gangs.
“If they try to put a UPP here,” he says, “there will be a war.”
Then that is what it shall be.
Targeting gang houses
Jogador pulls his rifle strap over his head and laces it around his right shoulder. He walks to the street’s edge, talks to other gang members. His hand is always on his weapon, watching and waiting for the police to arrive.
A postscript from CNN:
At least 35 people have died, 174 arrested and 123 detained since violence broke out Sunday as a response by drug gangs to an increased police presence in the crime-ridden slums, known as favelas, police said, according to the official Agencia Brasil. More than 96 vehicles have been burned.
Residents trapped in the crossfire and unable to go to their jobs have waved white flags outside their homes asking drug gangs to spare them, as criminals spray police with semi-automatic weapon fire and military artillery.
On Friday, police detained the wife of Marcinho V.P, a renowned drug lord who allegedly ordered the coordinated attacks from a prison in the state of Parana.
According to local reports, the conflict began November 21 when disgruntled drug traffickers decided to launch an attack against Rio residents to protest the government’s crackdown on their organizations.
There are not two sides to this story; there is only one side.
Cannon fodder in the dug wars: child sentry for the gangs
Ocimar Santos, president of Rocinha.org, the website for Rio’s largest favela, said that for people who live in Rio’s slums, this is business as usual.
“They are listening to the rumors and laying low,” Santos said.
If the conflict spills over to Rocinha, residents there are ready for violence, he said. But for the first time, Santos said, they will side with the police.
“We now perceive that our population feels more protected and respected by the police with the creation of these … peace units,” he said.
The tide is turning.
Here to stay? Police on patrol on Rio