Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – One sad piece of last week’s news was that almost 400 people in Cambodia were killed when they were pushed onto a small stretch of bridge, from both sides. Another piece of last week’s news is similar: dozens of drug gangsters (hereafter “bandidos”) have been killed in Rio after having been pushed onto a small stretch of “turf”, from all sides.
Cambodia was a one-off disaster; Rio will continue to have these disasters for years to come, until the city, state and federal governments definitively take back the hillsides from the bandidos. One thing that is missing from all the news reports these days is an answer to the question: “How did the bandidos get control in the first place?”
The answer may surprise you, but first a bit of background. In Brazil, the police are controlled by State Governors, not Mayors. There are no “Rio’s Finest” or other equivalent to “NYPD”. In 1983, the late Leonel Brizola, then the newly elected Governor of Rio de Janeiro, issued a direct order prohibiting the police from going into the slums when looking for criminals, thus giving carte blanche to the bandidos.
Governor Brizola’s motivation for abdicating police presence in the slums is controversial. His supporters claim it was because the police were worse than bandidos, they went in with guns blazing, little caring whom their bullets hit. His detractors say he did a deal with the drug lords so that, as long as they “encouraged” the slum dwellers to vote for him, he would ensure no police would ever slow down their business.
Whether social or cynical, the policy bore fruit: Brizola was again elected in 1991, serving till 1995. The intervening Governor tried once to send police to a slum, and then desisted. Subsequent populist governors (e.g. Anthony Garotinho and his wife Rosinha) continued the “hands off the slums” policy Brizola had begun. During more than 20 years of complete control over the slums, the bandidos became richer and better armed, and Rio’s slums became a safe haven in the generally unsafe world of drug trafficking.
Last year Governor Sergio Cabral, allied with President Lula, broke with this tradition and ordered the push. The objective is to reinsert the state (meaning police) into the slums. The first step was starting UPP pacification programs. The method was designed to avoid bloodshed: start with small slums and make public announcements of the incursion two days in advance, allowing the drug lords to pack up their paraphernalia and leave for parts unknown. In other words, push gently, but don’t shove.
As the number of UPPs increased, however, drug lords began to have trouble finding other places to set up shop, because all the slums were occupied by friendly or rival factions; even members of the same faction don’t like their “friends” taking over part of their turf. Last week, push came to shove. The rival factions united and pushed back. The world has seen the result.
The question “why did this happen?” has, of course, a more basic answer. The ever-increasing consumption of illegal “recreational” drugs throughout Brazil and the world over the past 25 years has created a mammoth market; the drug lords in Rio are part of the supply chain. Without this consumption, the bandidos would have no customers to conduct, and the hillsides might be at peace.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)