By Andrew Willis, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Recently re-elected city mayor Eduardo Paes has pledged to crack down on “mafia” groups that profit illegally off Rio’s vans. Paes announced last week that senior police official Cláudio Ferraz, will lead an “elite troop” whose task will be to map and tax the network of vehicles that currently serve as a popular public transport option throughout the city.
Cláudio Ferraz is the ex-head of the organized crime unit Draco (Delegacia de Repressão a Ações Criminosas Organizadas). Before inviting Ferraz to take up the position, Rio’s mayor discussed the appointment with the governor of state of Rio de Janeiro, Sérgio Cabral, as well as with the secretary of security, José Mariano Beltrame.
It is suspected that militias and drug-dealers are in control of a number of garages in Rio de Janeiro, charging fees to allow vans to circulate in particular areas. Those that do not comply run the risk of reprisals, with the Rio das Pedras favela in Jacarepaguá cited as one of the problem areas.
Paes has also instructed Ferraz to adopt a policy of zero tolerance with van drivers who participate in motorcade protests, a method used to pressurize the government into changing current regulations. These include restrictions on the number of vans that are allowed to legally operate.
In August, parts of Rio de Janeiro were brought to a standstill when protesting van drivers blocked a number of important arteries throughout the city. “The party’s over. Vans that participate in motorcade protests will be out of the bidding [for a license],” Paes told local media last week.
“If there was one thing that irritated me during the election period it was that protest [in August] which they did to threaten me, and I don’t give in to pressure.” said Paes.
Approximately 5,800 municipal vans are currently registered in the city of Rio, with thousands more thought to be operating illegally. They typically charge R$2.50 and drop clients off where they request as opposed to bus stops.
Although safety precautions are lax, leading to the high rate of vans involved in accidents, their popularity attests to the important role they play in the city’s transportation system.
One driver of an illegally operated van explained to the Rio Times how it works. “I pay the boss of my cooperative every day so that I can run this van. But my route is not one of the authorized ones, so it shouldn’t really exist,” said João Rodrigues.
“The boss started out as a driver himself ten years ago before setting up the cooperative. And it worked out. Now he’s making money and if it wasn’t for our vans the queues of people waiting to get to work would be even worse,” he said.
Rodrigues said that the mafia groups being targeted by Paes no longer exist along his route. In his opinion, government-imposed limitations on the number of vans are designed to channel more money to well-connected businessmen.
“The father-in-law of [Rio de Janeiro state governor] Cabral is the owner of a bus company and he doesn’t want more competition,” said the van driver Rodrigues.