Rio Sweeps Slums Ahead Of Tourism Rush

Police during an operation against gangs in Rio de Janeiro's Complexo do Alemao slum

Police take positions during an operation Sunday against alleged drug traffickers in the Complexo do Alemao slum, in Rio de Janeiro. Police backed by army helicopters and armored vehicles cleared out the notorious neighborhood, part of a campaign to improve security before Rio de Janeiro hosts the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Silvia Izquierdo/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Silvia Izquierdo/AP

In Rio de Janeiro, police and military on Sunday successfully retook one of the city's largest and most dangerous favelas, or slums, from drug lords. The military-style invasion involved more than 2,500 police and was carried out with relatively little violence.

It was in sharp contrast to the scene at a different slum earlier last week, where drug-trafficking gangs blocked roads, set cars and buses on fire, and attacked police posts.

The government raids are part of a campaign to improve security in the city before it hosts the Olympics and World Cup later this decade.

Brazilian officials are thrilled by the capture of the Complexo do Alemao, a collection of about a dozen densely populated slums. It has long been the base of operations for Rio's largest drug gang, the Red Command, and the latest success in a two-year-campaign to push gangs out of the city's slums.

The Rocinha favela, a cramped web of buildings that cling and sprawl across several lush hillsides, is likely to be next. An estimated 200,000 people live in Rocinha, Rio's largest slum and among the most violent.

A soldier in an armored vehicle patrols the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro

A soldier in an armored vehicle patrols the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday. Andre Penner/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Andre Penner/AP

Carlos Costas, 47, an activist who was born and raised in Rocinha, still considers it home. But after an issue with drug traffickers, he now lives in another neighborhood.

He says traffickers are just a symptom of a deeper problem for favelas in general: the lack of public services, including water, electricity and police protection.

"The state abandoned our communities for years, which is why arms, drugs and criminals wound up here. And a favela resident ends up living a negotiated peace. He exchanges his silence — about what he sees, what he hears — for the possibility of being left in peace," Costas says.

But that has changed in recent years as government forces have established round-the-clock peacekeeping efforts — a stark contrast to sporadic, violent raids of the past.

Sunday's raid on the Complexo do Alemao favela was possible in part because such units have started to erode the influence of drug traffickers in other areas.

Another factor was unprecedented coordination between the military and police.

"We never have seen before this cooperation," says Uribatan Angelos, a former head of the Rio de Janeiro police.

But Angelos also says that while more raids are likely, bringing permanent peacekeeping forces to all the favelas is not. The problem is numbers. For peacekeeping units, known as UPP, one officer is required for every 100 residents, and Rio has at least 1.5 million people living in favelas.

Angelos says authorities must find a different solution for slums that are too big.

"It's not possible to take care, to put UPP in all the favelas. It's not possible, it's not possible," Angelos says.

That is not the answer favela residents like Carlos Costas want to hear.

"When the governor installs a peacekeeping unit in a favela, everyone asks, 'When will they come to my community?' They have to come to all the favelas. They can't not come," he says.

But Costas has no illusions about why security is a top priority in Rio now.  His favela, Rocinha, sits on the road that links sites for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics to the rest of the city.

That makes the slum a likely next target for security forces hoping to keep the drug gangs on the run.

"A plan to takeover Rocinha isn't a priority because people who live here are asking for it," he says. "It's a priority because of the international tourism calendar."

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