Risks and Rewards in Brazil's Favela Offensive
November 11, 2011 | 2011 GMT
Rio de Janeiro’s most wanted drug trafficker was found by police in the trunk of a car fleeing the Rocinha favela ahead of a large-scale operation to pacify such slums before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Rocinha is considered the largest favela in Rio and the headquarters of Amigos dos Amigos (ADA), one of Rio’s two most powerful criminal organizations. Subduing it and nearby Vidigal favela is therefore filled with potential risks and complications. Despite previous successful pacification campaigns, the operation will likely last far longer than the official timeline, and its potential to control crime in the city is limited. The ultimate goal is to avoid internationally embarrassing flare-ups of violence when the international games finally come to town.
Antonio “Nem” Bonfim Lopes, Rio de Janeiro’s most wanted drug trafficker, was arrested around midnight Nov. 9 after being found in the trunk of a car driven by two men, one of whom claimed to be an honorary consul at the Consulate of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in an effort to evade arrest. Captured just a few miles from his home in Rochina favela, or slum, Nem was fleeing in anticipation of a scheduled Nov. 13 sweep of the favela by Brazilian police and military forces of Rocinha and neighboring Vidigal favela. The operation is the latest in a string of favela pacification efforts in Rio de Janeiro that began in 2008 to prepare the city to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
While its actual population is unknown, Rocinha is considered the largest favela in Latin America with somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 inhabitants. Vidigal is about half the size of Rocinha. Both favelas are controlled by Amigos dos Amigos (ADA), one of Rio’s two most powerful criminal organizations. According to Rio de Janeiro police, around 2 million reis ($1 million) worth of drugs, primarily cocaine, passes through Rocinha every week. Rocinha is close to some of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and has been steadily expanding outwards. Its location raises the risks of spillover violence into Zona Sul neighborhoods such as Sao Conrado, Gavea and Leblon, although the idea that stability in Rocinho and Vidigal would lower crime and boost property values in those areas has created strong local support for the police action.
Tactical Shift on the Horizon
The initial police pacification campaign in Rocinha has gone on for more than a week. Around 50 police have loosely surrounded the favela to check cars, stage raids to break up illegal business operations and make arrests. Police report that exact intelligence about Nem’s movements allowed them to track his vehicle as he left the favela and make the arrest. A Nov. 3 raid on the favela yielded 12 arrests, a host of confiscated counterfeit goods and the discovery of what police described as artillery stored next to a pile of tires for use against law enforcement helicopters in the event of a government assault on the favela. Police said the likely strategy was to set the tires on fire and create enough smoke to force the helicopters to fly lower, within range of the weaponry.
On Nov. 13, police will switch from limited searches and seizures to a full occupation of the favela with 2,600 local and federal police agents, including multiple elite strike teams. The Brazilian marines will also assist in the assault by providing armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, although the operation remains a police initiative. The standard plan for pacification campaigns is to send a large contingent of police and military personnel into the favelas for 45 to 60 days before turning the favela over to a Pacification Police Unit (UPP) of 200 officers to conduct regular patrols. But police likely expect to leave the initial wave of agents in the favela far longer than the standard plan to ensure security. In a similar ongoing operation launched in November 2010 to occupy interlinked favelas known as Complexo do Alemao, police do not plan to hand control over to the UPPs until July 2012.
The extensive lead-time and public announcement about the actual operation is a calculated strategy on the part of Rio’s police. The overarching goal is to give the criminal organizations the opportunity to cede control of the favelas. By conducting limited operations before the full invasion, gang leaders will have a chance to flee the favelas. Often, they will head to neighboring favelas or leave the city altogether. The invasions themselves are not designed to capture and detain gang members due to political concerns. If police attempted to cordon off the favelas in a surprise operation to capture or kill gang leaders, the operation could easily become a pitched battle against heavily armed organizations in a densely populated civilian environment. Considering the generally flimsy nature of construction in the favelas, the collateral damage likely from such a strategy would be difficult to justify politically.
Multiple Risks, Limited Potential
This strategy has multiple long-term drawbacks, however. By allowing the leadership of these drug trafficking organizations to stay largely intact, they can regroup and resume their activities elsewhere or even seek retaliation against the government. When other major favelas have been pacified, many of the traffickers fled to Rocinha and other uncontrolled favelas. Drug kingpins have been known to flee as far as Paraguay while still running their organizations. The general strategy is to push traffickers to the outskirts of the city in order to clear the city center. In this instance, police expect traffickers to flee to the large nearby area of Baixada Fluminense and the city of Niteroi. However, with hundreds of favelas in Rio alone, there are many potential havens for fleeing traffickers. Arresting traffickers has limited effects as well, as detained drug lords like Nem can continue running their organizations from prison due to poor prison security and high corruption levels.
Fleeing leaders also leave behind former employees with no source of income. These “orphans of the favelas” can be expected to resume criminal activities under their own direction and create persistent problems for the UPP. The pressure of corruption on police units stationed in the favelas is an even bigger challenge. Proximity to the drug trade and well-armed trafficking organizations means that Rio police working directly in the favelas are under constant pressure to accept bribes or succumb to extortion. For example, Nem and the other men arrested with him reportedly offered to pay a bribe of 1 million reis to escape capture.
International Games Looming
Despite these challenges visible in some of the pacified favelas, there have been several successful pacification efforts. For example, the small Santa Marta favela has begun to encourage visits from tourists as an alternative economic model.
Ultimately, however, the goal of favela pacification campaigns is primarily to project the appearance of control ahead of the upcoming international games. The need to minimize retaliatory violence means that the government will do what it can to allow the ADA and rival (and occasional partner) drug trafficking organization Comando Vermelho to cede territory peacefully to avoid an internationally embarrassing flare-up of violence.
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