Rio police claim drug gangs cleared from City of God
• Militia says it controls slum made famous by film
• Forces plan to stay, but community is sceptical
It is one of the most notorious postcodes on earth - a sprawling red brick shantytown that has been under the control of heavily armed drug traffickers for nearly four decades. This week, however, police claimed the gangs were no more in the City of God, the Rio slum made infamous by Fernando Meirelles' 2002 film.
On Tuesday, after two months of incursions, special forces celebrated the "conquering" of the City of God by hoisting the Brazilian flag over a creche they said was used as a base by traffickers.
Although the special forces are staying on to flush out lingering gang members, police say the community is now effectively gang-free. "This represents the handing back of democracy to the people of the City of God," Captain Ivan Blaz, a spokesman for Rio's special forces, told the lunchtime news show RJTV.
Until the success of Meirelles' film, which was nominated for four Oscars, City of God, or Cidade de Deus, was a little-known slum on the western outskirts of Rio. Based on a book of the same name published in 1997, the film documented the bloody struggle between cocaine traffickers that ravaged the community during the 1970s and 1980s, with many of the actors recruited from Rio's favelas.
Attempts to evict the real traffickers from the City of God, which is home to about 50,000 people, are part of a police initiative that authorities hope will help them regain control of the slums and serve as a blueprint for fighting urban crime across South America. "The state is going back to occupy territories from which it was absent, both in terms of public security and in terms of social investment," Rio's governor, Sérgio Cabral, said.
In their battle against the city's three drug factions, police have traditionally launched "hit and run" attacks on the favelas. The police kill more than 1,000 people each year, according to official figures, many during such raids.
Now the authorities plan to permanently station hundreds of military policemen inside three favelas as part of a pilot project to combat organised crime.
The police, who will spend 24 hours a day in the communities, aim to build trust, gather intelligence and help rebuild the slums. Millions of dollars will be invested in infrastructure and housing. City of God, where about 700 troops will be deployed, is the second favela in which the new "hearts and minds" policy will be tried.
Since November, Dona Marta, in southern Rio, has been home to 120 officers. Captain Priscilla de Oliveira Azevedo, the officer responsible for Dona Marta, said the idea of the policing initiative was "to hand the community back to the people". "It is a challenge ... because I've always worked in the conventional way: go in, combat and leave," she added.
The community policing scheme has not pleased everyone. Many predict the authorities will soon withdraw from places such as City of God and Dona Marta, allowing the traffickers to return. The government has also admitted its "policy of confrontation" will not end as a result of the community policing project.
Others view the initiative as little more than a marketing stunt by a media-savvy government, arguing that the City of God was only chosen because of its notoriety.
Mauricio Campos, a human rights activist from the Network of Communities against Violence, said similar projects had failed in the past. "The discourse is always the same: to occupy militarily and to then have a social 'occupation'," he said.
Jose Mario Santos, the president of the Dona Marta residents' association, said many locals had complained to him about aggressive searches by the community force. "Outside they are saying that this is community policing, that they say good morning, good afternoon and good evening. But here inside the slum we are seeing that it isn't like this," he said.
"If you ask the residents here what is better - the government or the parallel [power] - I bet you the huge majority will say the parallel [power] until they get used to the new reality."
Azevedo admitted convincing residents that their blue-clad neighbours were there to stay was a long-term project. Many children were so used to the drug traffickers they could even identify their weapons, she said.
# Tom Phillips
# The Guardian
# January 15, 2009