The Future of Insecurity in Rio

(International Relations and Security Network, 08/01/07)


Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva focused on security during the inauguration speech of his second term of office on 1 January. Speaking directly to Rio de Janeiro state governor Sergio Cabral, who was standing in the crowd, Lula said, “What has happened in Rio de Janeiro is not common crime, it is terrorism, and it needs to be fought with strong police and the strong hand of the Brazilian state.”


Later that day during his own inaugural speech, Cabral made security a central theme, announcing he would not hesitate to ask for federal help. During a phone conversation two days later, Lula told Cabral that the federal government was prepared to support him with national police and military soldiers, if necessary, to combat crime in the city of Rio de Janeiro, according to the Brazilian daily O Globo.


The events that sparked such strong discourse from one of the region’s leftist leaders began early in the morning on 28 December. Masked gunmen carried out attacks on fire and police stations, including attacks on police personnel, pinpointing specific areas of the city. The attackers also seized and burned city buses. After 24 hours of seemingly random violence, some 25 Brazilians had been killed. Seven had been burned alive inside a blazing bus.


Observers claimed leaders of the city’s organized criminal factions organized the attacks just days before Cabral’s 1 January inauguration to send him a message: They were still a strong force to be respected. But the relationship between Rio’s criminals and the city and state political leaders runs much deeper than a show of bravado.


Since the mid-1980s, Rio’s criminal factions have traded guns and drugs along the currents of an underground world where power matters more that life. The city’s shantytowns, or favelas, evolved from communities of impoverished families to well-defended fiefdoms.


Heavy handed policies, a zero-tolerance anti-drug campaign, and military-like incursions into favela communities dominated the 1990s as leaders in Rio worked to contain the city’s security problems. They did not much care what happened inside the favelas as long as the insecurity did not spread into the street, especially the rich communities in the tourist area in the southern zone.


As the 90s stretched into the new millennium, a strong focus on gathering intelligence through cell phone tapping and the use of special operation troops, called the Battalion of Special Operations, helped whittle away at the power of the city’s organized criminal factions. By December, 2005 the state security secretary, Marcelo Itagiba, announced that all the city’s major criminal leaders had either been killed or captured. What he did not announce was that the captured leaders still wielded power while behind bars.


Many of these same leaders orchestrated the events of 28 December, only a year and some weeks after Itagiba made his public announcement.


Rio’s security forces managed to weaken organized criminal factions to make just enough room for another group of opportunists to enter the scene. As of last week, various groups of well-organized militias had taken control of some 92 favelas and 17 neighborhoods, according to Rio-based daily O Globo.


These militias, made up of off-duty policemen and retired cops, claim to offer security to the residents of the communities they “protect.” Yet, unlike the public security forces, the militias charge a tax, which amounts to thinly veiled extortion.


As much as 60 percent of the businesses in these areas are charged up to five percent of revenue. They range from some of the largest companies in the state to small food stands. Individual home owners must also pay some five reales (US$ 2.50) a month, which is a considerable sum for poor individuals that earn that much a day.


The presence of these militias grew from some 42 communities in 2005 to the present number.


Their existence is a nuisance to the organized criminal factions that over time have watched their turf exchange hands from allied groups to corrupt cops. Their frustration was the catalyst for the attack on various police points around the city.


The events that Brazil’s president called terrorism were directed at the men that form the growing numbers of paramilitary groups. These men have splintered the rule of law by taking justice into their own hands. They have undermined the contract between citizen and state by extorting the very people that many of them have sworn to protect.


Rio is besieged by organized crime, various bands of militia groups, and the city’s military police. Soon, there will be a fourth variable - elite policemen sent from the federal government, and perhaps a fifth - military soldiers - also brought in to help secure the city streets. Already, Cabral has asked for a minimum of 7,000 national police. The government may deliver before 9 January.