BETWEEN A ROCK AND A POLITICAL RACE: A favela in Rio de Janaieor. CREDIT: Stock Image/RUI BAIAO
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A POLITICAL RACE: A favela in Rio de Janaieor. CREDIT: Stock Image/RUI BAIAO

Rio de Janeiro — It is a quiet morning following a night of shoot-outs and 1,400 army personnel patrol the streets on foot, motorbikes and in trucks. Military engineers use heavy machinery to clear the streets of makeshift barricades erected by gang members. A man cuffed with a zip-tie for insulting a soldier is flanked by parachutists caressing their assault rifles. Welcome to Rio’s supercharged war on crime.

On the outskirts of a city renowned for its beaches and natural beauty, the slum of Vila Kennedy has already witnessed several military operations since the armed forces took control of security in the state last month in response to a surging crime wave. On previous occasions, soldiers were sent in to help combat crime, but this is the first federal intervention of its kind since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985. Soldiers say the favela is controlled by Comando Vermelho, one of the country’s dominant criminal factions.

They have nothing better to do. The state, instead of investing in schools, jobs, buses, sandals for children, they put money on rifles for soldiers
Maria Cristina dos Santos

Maria Cristina dos Santos, sister of the man who was arrested, cries in anger. "He is poor but doesn’t have to be humiliated," she yells, adding that while he uses drugs he is not involved in trafficking. "They have nothing better to do. The state, instead of investing in schools, jobs, buses, sandals for children, they put money on rifles" for soldiers.

Her anger is directed at President Michel Temer, who, last month, signed a decree putting the military in charge of security in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where levels of violence have risen in tandem with vicious drug gang infighting and a lack of adequate policing in the midst of an economic crisis. Temer said the intervention was needed because organised crime, "is a metastasis that spreads around the country".

Yet critics see the intervention as a ploy to lift Temer’s government, party and allies in an election year. Temer said last month that he would not run in the October 7 poll.

A survey by CNT/MDA shows that 69% of Brazilians approve of Temer’s decision. However, the move divides citizens of the favelas. In the streets of Vila Kennedy, a woman whispers that she will be reprimanded by gang members if she speaks up, and dashes away: "We have nothing to do, we are trapped in the middle of all this."

Vinícius Rodrígues, says parts of Vila Kennedy are "at war", but fears the military will leave a mess for residents after they leave: "We will stay behind and suffer the consequences," as gang members could retaliate against locals. In another favela called Kelson’s, a woman accused of being an informer was reportedly tortured by gang members, who placed a grenade in her mouth.

Reginaldo Lima, who has worked as a mediator between warring factions in some of Rio’s favelas, agrees: "The residents now have to live in a permanent face-off with drug traffickers on the one side and military men on the other side, and risk being caught in crossfire. Criminals are not dumb. In the Brazilian criminal culture, when you confront them, they will lay low, but then they will always return, more organised and stronger."

Military men hand out leaflets to residents of Jardim Catarina, another poor area, bearing a picture of Rio’s famous Sugarloaf Mountain and the words: "It is not enough for it to be wonderful, it has to be secure". In Vila Kennedy soldiers unload chemical toilets. Some residents welcome them.

"There’s always been gangs, but not with the heavy weapons they carry now. There are shoot-outs all the time and you can’t do anything without their permission here," says a male resident who wishes to remain unnamed. For him, the intervention is "totally a political move" by the government to lift its battered popularity but, he adds, "things are better with them here", motioning to patrolling soldiers.

The residents now have to live in a permanent face-off with drug traffickers on the one side and military men on the other side, and risk being caught in crossfire

With a general election in October, opinion polls show that security is a top priority for Brazilians. The intervention has also blocked an unpopular pension reform that would have required a change in the constitution, as such reforms are forbidden while military intervention is in force.

Temer told radio Bandeirantes the military intervention was a "master stroke, but not an electoral one", stressing he is not a candidate. But Rio-based security expert Robert Muggah argued that Temer’s "tough-on-crime approach would play well with the public and would bolster the credentials of like-minded presidential and state-level candidates".

The intervention "strengthens the government, exploits the fears of the population, thus gaining the support of people who want something done", says Renato Sérgio de Lima, head of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security. But it will not solve the security problem, which is not exclusive to Rio, he says. "It is stigmatising for Rio to see the state adopt a measure as radical and abrupt as a federal intervention."

Raul Jungmann, Brazil’s former defence minister turned head of the newly minted ministry of public security, said he "will fight hard against organised crime, without ever disregarding human rights". However, images of favela residents being subjected to random background checks by soldiers, and of school children having their backpacks searched, have sparked a furore.

Rio’s public defender’s office said in a note that "living in a poor community is not enough reason" for suspicion. For Isabel Lima at the Rio-based human rights group Justiça Global, the problem of violence cannot be handled with "a logic that is more appropriate for a war". Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief, said this week he was "concerned" by the decree giving "the armed forces authority to fight crime".

In Jardim Catarina, soldiers walk past graffiti sprayed by gang members that read "bullets to the government". "This intervention will solve nothing here," charges José Trinidade, who has lived there for three decades. "This is just politicking. I just want everyone, the soldiers, the gangs, and the politicians to go away and leave us in peace."

© The Financial Times Limited 2018

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