- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO — One of the most beautiful cities in the world, this former capital of Brazil is rapidly becoming one of the most violent.

In “Civil War,” a recent book by Dr. Luis Mir, an emergency-room physician in Sao Paulo, the author said there were 600,000 killings in Rio by gangsters and police in the past 20 years. Several leading newspapers corrected him, counting 700,000 homicides in that period.

Allowing for five leap years in those two decades, this averages 82 killings every day in Rio by Dr. Mir’s count, or 96 homicides per day, if the newspapers are right. Another way of putting it is in killings per year per 100,000 population: For the entire United States, the figure is 10; in Rio de Janeiro, it’s 55.

This level of violence is that of a war that continues after 20 years with no truce in sight in a city of 10 million inhabitants and some 400 slums.

“We are all in shock,” said Nanko van Buren, a European aid worker in Rocinha — with almost a half-million people, the largest slum in Latin America. He works with the Institute of Brazilian Innovations in Social Health (known by its Portuguese acronym, IBISS), a nongovernmental organization trying to improve living standards of the poor. At least twice a week, he dodges stray bullets and runs for his life.

Mr. Van Buren said two police officers have been arrested for recent killings, but he doubts things will improve soon “because the root of the problem is the unequal spread of opportunity for schooling, housing, work and health care. Some people here grab any chance to share some of the enormous wealth in this country. Unless there is a better distribution of wealth, this kind of violence will continue.”

More people ages 24 and younger are killed by guns each year in Rio de Janeiro than in many formal war zones. Almost without exception, they are involved in drug wars. Stray bullets kill some. Most of the fatalities take place in disputes over territory between drug gangs or between gangs and the police.

Drug gangs employ mostly teenagers to guard their domains and assign them military ranks. The youngsters presume — incorrectly — that police do not hurt children.

Coca paste from Colombia is smuggled to Rio, where it is processed into powdered cocaine. The drug is used in Brazil and exported through the Amazon jungle to Europe and the United States. The gangs use the profits to buy guns, often more sophisticated than police weapons, on black markets in Eastern Europe.

“These arms fuel the war in Colombia, but also in several slums around the continent,” said Mr. Van Buren.

Gangs fire heat-seeking missiles, for example, trying to blow police helicopters out of the sky. “And the underequipped, underpaid and often corrupt police has to compete with them,” said Saskia Pebbens, a university researcher who is studying violence against and by the police. Over the past four months, she cruised day and night with the military police of the 22nd Battalion in Rio’s worst neighborhoods.

“The police don’t have enough bullets even for training, their bulletproof vests are not good enough, their vehicles are in a deplorable state. They have to fight corruption within the police force as well as on the streets.

“I witnessed the worst atrocities against them — from throwing rocks on their vehicles from bridges to planned murders and coldblooded executions. It is an almost an impossible situation to change. The truth is, rank-and-file policemen are desperate for better working conditions and better relations with the communities they protect.”

During the nightly cruises, Miss Pebbens fell in love with a policeman and married him. She said that because the authorities have in effect abandoned the slums, a power vacuum was created and filled by the drug gangs.

An average of two policemen are killed every week in Rio, mostly shot while on patrol. Sometimes they are slain off-duty, perhaps while having a drink in a bar.

This may change. Justice Minister Marcio Thomas Bastos announced not long ago an agreement to spend the equivalent of almost $15 million after a wave of drug-related violence. The money would be used to create a new elite police unit and to increase current police forces and improve their working conditions.

Mr. Bastos spoke of almost daily shootouts between gangs and police as tarnishing the city’s image of beauty and friendliness and of endless joy and pleasure.

One of the results was the announcement by state authorities that they would send 850 policemen to target gangs. The plan involves teams of armed police carrying out surprise raids in some of Rio’s more notorious slums, or favelas. They have orders to shoot to kill armed drug traffickers who terrorize residents.

The campaign, called Operation Maximum Pressure, began in November, but was suspended during the pre-Lenten Carnival in February.

An official with a human rights group warned that these new policies would backfire and cause more mistrust between slum dwellers and the police. They predicted more violence and said a complete overhaul of the police and military police may be necessary.

“People in the favelas are extremely unhappy with the current situation. They want change. Less violence and more peace, so they can develop their own, better life and lifestyles in poverty but with dignity,” said Paulo, an aid worker in Rocinha. The police have killed two of his sons, and two are involved in drug trafficking; Carlos, his youngest son, was threatened and blackmailed by the police, he said.

“Even though Carlos escaped the traffickers, he is still a victim of police brutality and harassment,” said Paolo. “To the outside world, the perception is that we are all a bunch of criminals. … Most of us here in Rocinha and the other favelas are decent and hard-working people. Most of us have a commitment with God. It’s just that we are poor because we lack the opportunity of education to get higher up in life.”

He said that Rio’s poor and middle class are part of the city’s beauty, and without them, it wouldn’t be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Paolo is right: The slums of Rio are not exclusively about murder and mayhem.

Starting with small, self-help community projects, the municipal government is trying to improve living standards in poor neighborhoods by upgrading their infrastructure and providing social services.

Anton Foek is a freelance reporter who lived in Rio de Janeiro for more than 20 years and currently resides in Amsterdam and New York City. Born in Paramaribo, Suriname, a former colony of the Netherlands in South America, he has Dutch citizenship.

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