Rio de Janeiro's world-famous Carnaval celebration begins today, but partygoers will be greeted by more than 30,000 police and soldiers called in after the city's notoriously powerful organized crime "commands" went on a two-day rampage earlier this week. The commands, commonly referred to as "drug gangs" in mainstream media accounts, effectively govern huge swathes of the city -- the teeming favelas, or shantytowns, home to more than a million of Rio's inhabitants, where the Brazilian state is present only in the form of occasional police forays, and the well-armed commands have swept in to fill the vacuum (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/257.html#parallelpower).
Members of the powerful Red Command unleashed a wave of violence in the city on Monday and Tuesday, burning buses, throwing small bombs, engaging in running gun battles with police and attacking stores and shops that failed to heed the Command's order to close down. Led by imprisoned drug trafficker Fernando da Costa (known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar or "Seaside Freddy"), who gained international notoriety for his involvement in a guns-for-drugs deal with the Colombian FARC guerrillas, the Red Command's influence spreads from the country's overcrowded prisons to the favelas of Rio and, apparently, into famous neighborhoods like Ipanema whenever it wishes to flex its muscles. The Red Command is uniformly held responsible for the wave of strikes and violence that preceded the elections last fall that brought Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva to the presidency.
By Wednesday, police had carried the violence back to the favelas, arresting 20 and killing two in gun battles in the favela Jacarezinho. Also Wednesday, the governor of Rio state, Rosinha Matheus, announced the sudden commencement of "Operation Safe Rio," calling up 28,000 military and civil police members to impose a virtual state of siege on the city. They have been now been joined by another 3,000 soldiers of the Brazilian army at Matheus' request, according to Agencia Brasil, the Brazilian state news agency.
Explanations for the sudden show of criminal force varied. Rio authorities told Reuters the commands were reacting to police pressures on them, but other analysts contacted by the press agency reported that local police forces were in "disarray" after changes of government since the elections. "Criminals have acquired social control through the dissemination of fear," said Walter Maierovitch, president of Brazilian Giovanni Falcone Institute for crime research and Brazil's first anti-drug czar in 1999.
But also through the effective absence of the state. Incoming President da Silva has vowed to make cleaning up the favelas a priority, but the new government has yet to produce. "The big problem for the favelas is the long absence of the state," Sergio Magalhaes, Rio state's secretary for urban development, told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month. "The favelas have been abandoned. The state, in many favelas, does not provide public services, such as police security, cleaning, electricity," he said. "The absence of the government means the one who controls the favelas are the ones with the biggest guns."
For Luiz Paulo Guanabara of the Brazilian drug reform group Psico-Tropicus, the Red Command's rampages are tied to the treatment of imprisoned leaders like Seaside Freddy, who currently manages the Red Command from a prison cell in Rio state. "Freddy was doing time in a federal prison in Brasilia, but was transferred to a state Maximum Security Prison in Rio de Janeiro," he told DRCNet. "Rio is his home town and in no time he had control of the prison and of the drug trade in the city. Everyone points to him as responsible for last year's 'state of siege' imposed as a challenge to state authority due to undercutting of his group privileges -- the banning of cell phones, for example. They badly need cell phones to control the drug market from inside the prisons. And they want a lot of other stuff. And everyone is pointing to him again as the mastermind behind the vandalism which took place in Rio over the last two days and nights. Another big narco is also being pointed as coauthor of the order issued from the prison that triggered barbarism over the city. The Brazilian attorney general told the press he is considering transferring Beira-Mar to a federal prison in another state -- to try to clip his wings."
But to cut the commands down to size, said Guanabara, means going after their ranking members, and that sparks both reaction from the commands and the deaths of innocents. "To cut down on their privileges also means arresting or killing higher rank dealers who are physically present at the communities controlling the drug market. To raid the dealers, the police must enter the community, and often there is a firing with heavy weaponry on both sides. Then all around, there are what we call here 'lost bullets,' and often innocents are killed. The community then protests against the police, who in turn always deny responsibility for the killings."
The commands rampaged through Rio last fall after then Gov. Benedita da Silva of Lula's Workers Party went on the offensive against them. But da Silva lost the gubernatorial election to the Brazilian Social Party's Matheus, whose husband had governed the state before da Silva. Whether the commands are sending a message to Matheus remains to be seen.
If they are, said Guanabara, it is a message "devoid of political content." Instead, he said, it is a message about "business." And business is good, with Brazil on the cusp of surpassing the US as the world's leading cocaine consumer nation.
More enforcement is not the answer, said Guanabara. While legalization is a policy whose time has not yet come in Brazil, he suggested, some sort of regulation and normalization of the trade -- perhaps even control by the state -- is the only logical answer. "The end of drug prohibition would surely be a hard blow on the narco economy here," argued Guanabara. "On the other hand if you put more police on the streets to repress drug distribution and drug dealers and their commandos, you end up only getting more violence and more corruption. The US has cleverly managed to export the drug war to all Latin American countries. It is a means of domination and a threat to national sovereignty, and it is an industry in which selected groups profit, such as the narcos, weaponry dealers, the anti-drug agencies, some politicians, etc. Meanwhile, the people and the drug users are suffering."