The Occupation of Rocinha and Vidigal

By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In what is being painted as a historic victory for peace in Rio de Janeiro, in the early hours of Sunday morning, police and military security forces moved into some of the last remaining gang-controlled favelas in the city’s Zona Sul (South Zone). Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela famous for its awe-inspiring scale and geography as well as the heavily-armed traficantes, is now occupied.

The occupation of Rocinha, photo by Marino Azevedo/Imprensa RJ.

In an operation that lasted just two hours and passed without a single gunshot being fired, the neighboring favelas of Rocinha, Vidigal and Chácara do Céu were invaded by around 3,000 security personnel including military and civil police officers, federal traffic officers and naval soldiers.

Supported by approximately nineteen tanks and armored vehicles, nine helicopters and an assortment of other police vehicles, the occupation began in earnest at around 2:30AM on Sunday when police blocked off all the access routes into the communities. Just after 4AM the first tanks rolled into Rocinha and Vidigal and helicopters began to circulate overhead.

Eyewitness reports say that the favelas were eerily quiet on Saturday night. “Everybody stayed inside. The usual weekend parties didn’t happen. Everybody was waiting to see what would happen next,” one Rocinha resident said.

According to Stewart Alsop, a Californian living in Vidigal, “At around 2:30AM the traffickers started putting up road blocks. There was one road block that consisted of a line of trash about one meter high. Another one that consisted of old mattresses and motorcycles…it seemed extremely likely that the traffickers would put up some sort of fight.”

But the anticipated firefight never happened, and by around 6AM the communities were declared occupied. At 12:45 in the afternoon the next day, Brazilian and Rio State flags were being symbolically hoisted in the center of Rocinha.

Alsop speculates, “After the leadership of the gangs were arrested or escaped [earlier in the week]…the only traffickers left were small time managers and street soldiers…these young men had only three options on Sunday: hide, go to prison, or die.”

A helicopter circles the steep banks of Rocinha during the Sunday occupation operation, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A helicopter circles the steep banks of Rocinha during the Sunday occupation operation, photo by Marino Azevedo/Imprensa RJ.

According to the most recent reports, just six men were arrested (in addition to those arrested earlier in the week), and more than 100 types of weapons; 43 rifles, two rocket launchers, a submachine gun, as well as almost half a ton of drugs and 75 motorcycles have been seized.

They also discovered human remains at a location at the top of Vidigal which, according to residents, was being used by traffickers as a clandestine cemetery.

Reports vary as to the feeling in the communities following Sunday’s operation. Some reported feelings of euphoria and liberation, and crowds gathering to express their gratitude to the police. But there have also been more cautious comments, describing “a tense acceptance of the new order.”

Alsop says, “This part of the city has been generally ignored by the government and the residents are extremely distrustful of the police, who are viewed as corrupt. People are worried about the rising cost of living that will come with pacification…[but] the main fear that the residents have is that the drug dealers will come back.”

Zezinho, who grew up in Rocinha and operates a favela tour business and a DJ school, says, “My fear is what will happen after the Olympic games? The police will leave and then the traffickers come back and there will be a war for the favela again.”

33 Responses to "The Occupation of Rocinha and Vidigal"

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  3. Carlos  November 16, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    This is fantastic grew up in Rio all my life , would never imagine this day . I am so excited about the development of country recently and hope this operation can bring peace for a long time not just the world cup and Olympics.

  4. Tom  November 16, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    This is a BIG deal. I was in Rio when all this started. They may have “officially” kicked this off early Sunday morning, but it started much earlier in the week. Nem was arrested days before this. This whole operation is a credit to the local Brazilian police and military. Let’s hope they can keep it up. With a few minor blemishes, they’ve been doing a great job on the favelas so far. This process presents the possibility of turning Rio into a world class city. It’s close now, and the police are helping to close the gap. My congratulations.

  5. Clarke  November 20, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    This is all about real estate. The government is going to push those people out. Vidigal has some of the most valuable real estate in Rio De Janeiro.

    Those locations will never be the same again. I’m glad I was able to experience Vidigal, before pacification.

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