By Doug Gray, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Tuesday June 23rd saw angry protests in Laranjeiras in front of the Palacio Guanabara, residence of Governor Sergio Cabral. Injuries and traffic chaos stretching across Zona Sul were reported. Police fired plastic bullets at the crowd and used pepper spray to maintain control.
Throughout the night drivers mobilized their vans throughout Flamengo and Laranjeiras. They parked in the hundreds along the roads, leaving residents scratching their heads on their way to work. Up to 300 vehicles were lined up along Rua Pinheiro Machado outside the Governor’s home from the early morning hours, creating jams across the city.
The crowds assembled the day new licenses for drivers in the Lakes region and the Costa Verde were to be signed. More than sixty drivers from the two greater metropolitan regions had to be kept under police guard on their way to the Palace.
The new licenses are seen by drivers as a crucial step towards the same move in metropolitan Rio. They fear this new procedure will reduce the number of vehicles from over 1800 to 691.
The vans with striped markings down the side are ubiquitous throughout the city. They are often run illegally with no reported revenue and therefore no taxes paid to the government. Supplementing the regular bus routes, they serve an important function. Most passengers are commuters who live in the suburbs and work in the center and Zona Sul.
The government is clearly keen to get its hands on some of that income. It has proposed the creation of several ‘companies’ to oversee the van routes. This would mean that licenses are formalized for those drivers who make the grade. Any found to be operating illegally will be fined and their vehicles confiscated.
Licenses for the Lakes Region and Costa Verde drivers marks a big step towards the end of a battle between van operators and the authorities. Department of Transport President Rogerio Onofre hailed the move as a way to curb illegal transport, a major source of funds for organized crime. He also noted it would increase public safety, with regulations for both vehicles and drivers put in place.
Nevertheless the protests in Laranjeiras turned ugly when one of the main arteries into Zona Sul, Pinheiro Machado, was closed to traffic. Santa Barbara Tunnel was blocked for much of the morning. Two people were injured as police fired rubber bullets into the crowds. Officers showed news cameras ‘weapons’ including nail-riddled potatoes and chunks of sidewalk that had been hurled at them.
Despite the chaos of the road closure for thousands of commuters, many people have come out in support of the operation. Continued efforts by the governor and Mayor Paes to tackle illegal operations have shown that they can back up their rhetoric against organized crime.