Police battling Rio de Janeiro slums

Increased presence of officers not abating shantytown violence

By Juliana Barbassa

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 5 2012 9:57 p.m. MDT

Police patrol as children joke in the Manguinhos slum of Rio de Janeiro. Brazil is determined to gain control of Rio before the city hosts 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic events.

Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — Jose Martins de Oliveira has lived with plenty of weapons and violence during his 45 years in the sprawling hillside shantytown of Rocinha. For most of that time, it was drug traffickers who controlled the giant slum with brutal force.

Now, it's the police he's worried about.

Since November, several police officers sent in to save the neighborhood have been accused of taking bribes. Another was murdered in a shootout. And just last week, three were charged with rape.

"With the police, we thought we'd have more tranquility," the 65-year-old Martins said. "We feel a little fooled. We were told we'd have peace."

Martins and other residents had high hopes when law enforcement arrived to seize control of the neighborhood in a much-hyped security program meant to prove that this Olympic city is capable of stemming endemic violence — among the promises made during Rio's candidacy to host the 2016 Games.

But the immense challenges the police have faced in pacifying the city's violent slums have raised questions about the state's ability to keep the peace as Rio prepares to take the world stage not just for the Olympics but the 2014 World Cup, which will host its headline events in Rio.

The head of state security nearly doubled the number of officers patrolling Rocinha from 350 to 643 in April to deal with the violence, which included execution-style killings. That heavy police presence has ironically become the most visible sign that the transition is not going smoothly.

Since the highly publicized slum "pacification" program began in late 2008, it became a centerpiece of Rio state's government. More than 21 permanent police units with nearly 4,000 officers have been created citywide, covering 89 shantytowns.

Jose Mariano Beltrame, the state's head of security and the program's architect, said in a press conference that it's helping "more than 1 million people sleep in peace." Another 19 units will be inaugurated across this city before Rio hosts the final World Cup match.

With Rocinha's takeover, the police closed its grip on areas key to ensuring the safety of the millions of visitors expected to flood into the city.

Police with rifles strapped to their chests patrol shantytowns along the road from the main international airport into town. They can also be seen in the slums surrounding Rio's iconic Maracana stadium, where the Olympic opening ceremony will be held, and posh southside Rio neighborhoods such as Ipanema and Copacabana. Nearly all the areas had been in the hands of drug lords, who ruled them as their private fiefdoms, violently dispensing justice and demanding loyalty from residents.

Rocinha's seizure was particularly dramatic, further raising expectations of a better life. The slum's leading drug lord, Antonio Bonfim Lopes, suffered a humiliating arrest days before the takeover, appearing on Brazilian television being pulled from the trunk of a car, after being caught trying to escape.

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