- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

RIO DE JANEIRO

Half an hour north of Copacabana Beach, scene of last month’s million-plus crowd at a concert by the Rolling Stones, and cut off by busy Avenida Presidente Kennedy, Vigario Geral is one of the many slums that blight this seaside city of 8 million.

A few blocks from the green bridge over the highway that marks the entrance to the slum, a boy in his early teens sits shirtless and shoeless, a 9 mm pistol stuck in his waistband.

Another shirtless young man in his early 20s stands with an AK-47 slung over a shoulder, and several more visibly armed youths lean against a nearby wall.

In the dead of night on Dec. 13, eight young men were kidnapped from the neighborhood by gunmen who residents believe may have been members of a rival gang from the Parada de Lucas slum, working with corrupt police officers. No trace of the missing Vigario Geral youths has been found.

“Things are difficult all over Brazil, but especially here,” said Luzineide Vieira de Souza, acting head of the neighborhood tenants’ association. Mrs. de Souza is an energetic, vivacious woman who grows suddenly, visibly sad when talking about the disappeared youths.

“These disappearances have brought back the same kind of fear we had in 1993.” That was the year Vigario Geral was the scene of one of Rio’s most notorious crimes — the massacre of 21 residents by a police death squad enraged by the refusal of Flavio Negao, a local drug lord, to cut them in on a percentage of his cocaine sales.

While the district remains under the control of a faction loyal to Comando Vermelho (Red Commando), one of Rio’s three most powerful drug gangs, nearby Parada de Lucas is under the sway of a group loyal to Terceiro Comando (Third Commando). A third gang — Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) — controls swaths of territory throughout the city.

Dozen die in Rocinha

Fighting among the three drug gangs has become markedly more spectacular in recent months.

This month, for the first time since 2003, more than 1,000 troops were sent into favelas like Vigario Geral after a theft of weapons from a Rio military base. Soldiers freshly returned from Haiti exchanged fire with drug dealers and set up checkpoints for favela residents to pass through on their way in and out of slums.

In January, Telemar, Brazil’s largest fixed-line telecommunications operator, won a court ruling relieving it of the obligation to provide telephone service in the Rocinha slum of Rio’s southern zone, owing to security concerns. Battles between gangs there have left a dozen dead in recent weeks.

In December, gang members with automatic rifles attacked a courthouse near Rio de Janeiro’s international airport, where police were bringing a gang leader for trial. The firefight left two policemen and three gang members dead. Seven prisoners, including a reputed drug lord, escaped.

“We have 30,000 young men between the ages of 15 and 24 associated with the drug trade. When one young man dies, there is another one to take his place,” said Rio Mayor Cesar Maia, whose office has promoted what is called “the favela-barrio program,” which seeks the social integration of slum residents.

“We need a program of urbanization and inclusion,” said Mr. Maia.

The feud between Vigario Geral and Parada de Lucas, though, stretches back decades and is said to have begun in 1984 over a soccer match. As the two favelas got together for a contest to see which had the better team, things ended with a goal being scored and a partisan of one gang pulling out a pistol and fatally shooting the other side’s goalkeeper.

A police outpost now guards the divide between the two slums — a no man’s land that residents call “Faixa de Gaza” — the Gaza Strip.

In January, police arrested a butcher from Parada de Lucas who was said to specialize in cutting up the bodies of young men killed in gang encounters, but he was soon mysteriously released. The butcher has since disappeared — killed perhaps, it is said, by members of the drug gang, to keep him from informing on them.

Renegade cops step in

The three warring gangs were recently joined by a new group of combatants — paramilitary teams of current and former policemen who enforce a brutal justice in areas where the drug dealers have been driven out.

A recent expose by O Globo newspaper said a group of about 200 current and former policemen are running a protection racket for merchants on the city’s south side over a swath of neighborhoods that encompass about 220,000 residents.

“When you look at the higher levels of the military and civil police, there is awareness that extortion and things like that can’t go on,” said Nanko van Buren, a Dutch psychiatrist whose Rio-based Brazilian Institute for Innovations in Public Health has worked in the favelas since the early 1990s.

“They realize very well that they are not just fighting against three very big organized-crime cartels, but also against part of their own police force. That part [renegade policemen] is getting worse and worse.”

In favelas like Rio das Pedras and Jacarepagua on Rio’s western edge, illegal police militias, called “mineiros,” have largely succeeded in driving out drug traffickers and now enforce “justice” for their own profit. In these slums, they maintain control of enterprises ranging from stolen cable-television service to distributing building cement.

Vigario Geral, meanwhile, is still seeking information about its missing sons.

“It’s been two months since they disappeared, and the bodies still haven’t been found,” said Mrs. Vieira de Souza of the tenants’ association of Vigario Geral.

“Before, in the 1990s — when we had the problems and the people were killed — we found all the bodies. The fact that we don’t know what happened this time affects everyone in the community.”

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