Feature

Brazil: The army takes on the drug gangs

It’s official: The army and the police have “reconquered” two of Rio de Janeiro’s worst slums, reclaiming them from the drug gangs that have run them for years, said Rodrigo Rötzsch in Brazil’s Folha.

It’s official: The army and the police have “reconquered” two of Rio de Janeiro’s worst slums, reclaiming them from the drug gangs that have run them for years, said Rodrigo Rötzsch in Brazil’s Folha. The tanks rolled in last weekend in response to an all-out war launched by the drug gangs two weeks ago. The gangs had risen suddenly, throwing firebombs at police buildings and torching cars all over Rio to express resistance to the government’s installation of Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, in some of the city’s slums over the past year. By the time the authorities gained the upper hand this week, some 50 people had been killed. Troops will now remain in the two notorious slums of Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemão for at least six months, until UPPs can be established in those areas as well. Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral called the police operation “a great victory.”

Spare us the praise for the police, said Fernando Canzian, also in Folha. They were just doing—at long last—what they are paid to do. The fact that the cleanup of the slums went so quickly and smoothly only proves that “it was easy to dismantle the criminal gangs” once the corrupt police chose to do so. One wonders why it had never happened before. The people who live in the slums, after all, pay the salaries of police officers and government bureaucrats. Thanks to Brazil’s “perverse tax system,” which features high sales taxes on basic necessities, the poor “pay proportionately much more of their income in tax than the rich.” Yet these slum dwellers were left to “live in terror” under drug gangs for years. Only now, when the government wants to prove that it can guarantee security for the foreigners who will flock here for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, is Rio finally being cleaned up.

Yet it will take more than police to “free the city from the scourge of organized crime,” said Brazil’s O Globo in an editorial. We need more stringent border control by the army to choke off the supply of weapons flowing to the drug dealers; without their arsenals, they will be less feared. In addition, once the gangs are dismantled, there will be a vacuum of social services in the slums—after all, the drug lords were providing employment, security, even health care and schooling in many of these lawless neighborhoods. For the government to reclaim those essential functions will be “a much larger project.”

Even so, Brazil has some big advantages over Mexico in fighting drug gangs, said Irene Selser in Mexico’s Milenio. For one, the Brazilian gangs aren’t nearly as rich. Mexican gangs, which operate a sophisticated smuggling industry aimed at the “vast U.S. market next door,” have accumulated immense wealth with which to buy high-tech equipment and weaponry—along with corrupt officials. The Brazilian gangs, by contrast, are local operations that run Rio’s slums like little fiefdoms. Sending troops into Mexican cities just displaces drug lords; stationing troops in Brazilian slums “could destroy them.”

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