Military, Police Occupy Four of Rio’s Most Dangerous Favelas

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Brazil has sent some 1,500 security officials to occupy four of Rio’s most troubled favelas, but securing the neighborhoods will rely on long-term police presence in the future.

In an October 14 operation, Brazil dispatched security forces to occupy four of Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous favelas in the north of the city, part of the country’s bid to improve citizen security in the country ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

The operation began at 5:00am, with more than 1,500 police and military personnel were deployed to the neighboring favelas of Manguinhos, Mandela, Varginha, and Jacarezinho, accompanied by 24 tanks and seven helicopters. These favelas have a violent reputation, and police have traditionally steered clear of the area in order to avoid confrontations with the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) street gang which controls them.

The area holds special strategic importance to Rio officials, as it lies halfway between the Maracana stadium (which will host part of the 2014 World Cup) and the city’s main international airport.

The massive show of force occurred after a series of smaller police raids in the area, including one on the previous day in which five suspects were killed.  Perhaps because of these previous operations, authorities encountered no major resistance from gang members. According to officials, the operation came to an end in less than 20 minutes, with no shots fired.

InSight Crime Analysis

The quick and bloodless outcome of the operation stands in stark contrast to the November 2010 invasion of Rio’s Alemao favela, in which more than 30 people were killed in shootouts which lasted four days. Part of this is because police now rely less on the element of surprise, announcing — or in this case, at least hinting at — such operations in advance. The goal of this is to reduce the potential for violence and thus reduce the risk of harming innocent civilians, but critics say it gives criminals the chance to lie low or escape to other nearby favelas.

Thus, the burden of bringing lasting security to the area will fall on a permanent police presence, to be established in the coming months. The Rio government announced that it will set up four Police Pacification Units (UPPs) by January, which will be tasked with enforcing the rule of law in the beleaguered favelas.  In a press conference following the operation, Rio de Janeiro state Secretary of Security Jose Mariano Beltrame said that the priority now must be shifted to ensuring the safety of the 70,000 residents who live in the area. “What is important now is the return of the area to society, especially the transit routes that cross the region, through which millions of people pass every day. With this occupation, we will no longer have another Gaza,” said Beltrame, referring to the ironic nickname for the region.

Perhaps the most difficult element for authorities is the fact that the favelas are important distribution centers for the Red Command. The gang stands to lose sizeable share of its profits, as O Globo reports, Jacarezinho and Manguinhos are home to the largest centers of crack cocaine use in the city. And even if law enforcement officials manage to put an end to crack dealing in these neighborhoods, it will likely shift to nearby areas. According to O Globo, there is already evidence of this happening in the neighborhoods surrounding the occupied zone.

The operation was not without immediate success, however. As Rio Real blog points out, the incident was a positive demonstration of close coordination between the federal and local governments, the military, various police agencies as well as fire department officials. This was made possible with new centralized command post in Rio, which was created in June for the Rio+20 environmental sustainability conference. So while the prospect of long-term security in Manguinhos, Mandela, Varginha and Jacarezinho will have to wait, security officials will be better armed to continue pacification efforts in the future. 

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