Opinion by Samantha Barthelemy
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Shock. Disbelief. Fear. Insecurity. Adrenaline. Tension. Anger. Frustration. My Cidade Maravilhosa is under siege. Tracked armored tanks, M113 personnel carriers, hundreds of camouflage-painted soldiers and black-clad police officers flocked the streets of Rio de Janeiro this week. Bullets and low-flying police helicopters buzzed the clear blue sky as security forces battled against heavily armed youths.
First came Vila Cruzeiro, in Complexo da Penha. Then, Complexo do Alemão, the most notorious slum complex and key drug gang stronghold, where around 400,000 people live. A two-year-old was hit in the arm by a stray bullet. At least 35 deaths, mostly of suspected drug traffickers, were reported. Fearing for their lives, thousands of slum residents fled their homes and communities. What is this?
This past week, millions of incredulous Brazilians watched, helplessly, as over one hundred cars and buses were burned to ashes, police officers were attacked in their cabins and terrified Rio residents were caught crying desperately on camera.
Then we witnessed, live on November 25th, as packs of drug traffickers, with rifles hanging on bare shoulders, fled by foot, in motorcycles and a pick-up truck to Alemão following the police incursion in Vila Cruzeiro. This is crazy.
But here is something else that happened this week. For the first time in a long time, Rio residents felt pride in our government and security forces for, finally, coordinating efforts to combat Rio de Janeiro’s plague. We were proud of our police officers, praying for them at the feet of the Christ the Redeemer statue and cheering them on as if for our favorite soccer players. We were proud of our state authorities, fulfilling their responsibilities, exercising their rightful power by launching the largest police operation in history and showing who effectively controls Rio de Janeiro. We were also proud of our city, and we are claiming it back.
If Comando Vermelho (Red Command) and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) – which allegedly formed an alliance to retaliate against the government’s plan to install Police Pacifying Units in 13 of the city’s most violent slums – can make things difficult for us, well, the people and the state can unite to make things even harder in return.
“There is no doubt that Rio residents have reason to celebrate today,” said police inspector Rodrigo Oliveira, on November 27th. “We won,” announced Mário Sérgio Duarte, head of Rio’s state military police. Spectators all over the world were captivated by images of the dramatic, historic “victory” over Alemão, the placing of a Brazilian flag by police officers on a hilltop and the waving of hundreds of white flags by communities’ residents. We do deserve to celebrate.
Momentum has been garnered and we cannot afford to lose it. We still don’t know how long the military and police officers are planning to stay in Alemão, or whether they can. While the most notorious, Alemão is one of the dozens of drug gang controlled slums that still require state intervention. “Let’s take this step by step,” Rio’s Security Secretary, José Mariano Beltrame said at a news conference on Sunday evening. “We won a battle, but we did not win the war yet,” he added. “The mission will continue.” Indeed, it has only started.
Now Rio residents are left with a shaken sense of security and a strong feeling of hope. Hope that peace is finally returning to the world’s Wonderful City.
A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.