Drug violence could mar Brazil's Olympics dreams

Drug violence could mar Brazil's Olympics dreams

Just over three weeks ago, Rio de Janeiro landed the 2016 Olympic Games, the first ever in South America, setting off a sweaty, impromptu beach party that lasted most of the weekend. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil sobbed with happiness. Rio’s residents glowed with pride.

Then over the weekend, in a chilling outburst of violence, drug traffickers wielding what the police believe was a large-calibre weapon shot down a police helicopter just one mile from Maracana stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games will be held and the World Cup final will be played two years before the Olympics.

Suddenly, the celebration has been overwhelmed by hand-wringing that Rio’s chronic problem of drug violence is being laid bare before the world, and at a particularly inopportune time. Brazilian leaders are out touring the world, searching for the outside investments needed to build billions of dollars in urban infrastructure to prepare for the events.

The images of the downed police helicopter “really shocked Brazilians, and now everyone is worried about what will happen with the games,” said Nadine Matos, 21, who works at a hair salon a block from Copacabana Beach. “We need to tell the world where we stand so that people outside Brazil understand what measures we are taking and are not so worried when planning to come down here.”
For years, the police essentially abandoned the shantytowns, or favelas, that ring the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, following a policy that more resembled containment than enforcement. That allowed drug traffickers to create criminal strongholds where violence is pervasive. And as the downing of the helicopter illustrated, the police have not done enough to slow the flow of heavy weapons into the favelas.

“We never hid our problems during the candidacy process,” Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said while besieged by reporters in London, where he was on the first leg of a swing in search of investors for the public works projects. “We always said to people that we were still facing problems. We still have a lot to do, we have a long road ahead of us and what happened this weekend showed that.”
This year the government has tried a community policing approach to stemming the violence and cracking down on the traffickers holding sway over dozens of shantytowns, where about a third of Rio’s 6 million residents live. But the effort is nascent, affecting only five favelas so far, and the weekend of mayhem has set off a new round of debate here about whether the more militaristic strategy that has long prevailed has been useful.

The police said the weekend’s violence started after a trafficker in prison ordered his followers to invade a rival gang’s territory. The attack initiated clashes between the police and drug bandits in several favelas, leaving at least 22 people dead, including three police officers and a few bystanders.

At least one member of the International Olympic Committee, which highlighted Rio’s security challenges as its principal concern before the vote on Oct 2, was quick to point out that Rio was not the only city to endure violence after winning an Olympic vote. In July 2005, just a day after London was awarded the 2012 games, terrorists set off bombs on London’s trains and buses, leaving 52 dead and almost 700 injured.
With Brazil’s television talk shows and its newspapers filled with commentary about the effect of the violence on Rio’s image, city and state leaders are suddenly being forced to defend their Olympic bid all over again.

“There will be security before, during and after the games,” Sergio Cabral, Rio state’s governor, said.

The award of the Olympics has been viewed as a crowning achievement for the country and a personal triumph for the popular da Silva. But, he also found himself having to promise to provide additional money from the federal government in the next few months to beef up security in Rio. “I need to clean the filth that drug traffickers impose on Brazil,” he said.

Rio has one of the world’s highest murder rates, with 4,631 murders in the metropolitan area last year; that number represented a decline from 5,143 murders in 2006, government figures show. There were 523 murders in New York City last year.

Community policing
Rio’s state government began a community policing effort early this year, in which police officers try to establish a more permanent presence within the shantytowns. That differs from the prevailing approach for more than a decade, in which the police guarded the entrances to the favelas and only ventured in for select operations. These often turned into deadly gun battles with traffickers.
Though the community policing effort has so far been limited to five favelas, law enforcement experts said they were encouraged.

“For the first time, the police are not coming into the favelas shooting, and then leaving only to draw the hatred and scorn of the residents,” said Silvia Ramos, the coordinator of the Centro de Estudos de Seguranca e Cidadania at the University of Candido Mendes in Rio.

Other analysts said the new approach needs to be accompanied by new housing and the building of large avenues in the favelas to enable police cars to move in and out with ease.

The weekend mayhem began when a gang members from Morro de Sao Joao, backed up by about 200 men from other favelas, invaded the nearby Morro de Macacos neighbourhood.

The police waited to move in until early Saturday during daylight to avoid civilian casualties, Jose Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s secretary of public security, said.
As officers moved in, gang members opened fire on a police helicopter, causing it to explode and crash. Two of the six officers on board were killed.
Organisers of the Olympic bid promised the IOC that Rio would improve its police forces by 2012 with additional training, technology and resources. Law enforcement experts are hoping that will mean the Olympics will leave a legacy of improved policing in Rio.

“Now the cost of security will be very high, but it will be worth it,” said Rodrigo Pimentel, a former captain in the special operations unit of Rio’s Military Police. “Let’s be honest. One more helicopter that falls down in Rio de Janeiro or another slum invasion could seriously raise the chances of the Olympics and World Cup pulling out of Brazil.”

The International Herald Tribune