Pubdate: Thu, 15 Sep 2005
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2005 Newsday Inc.
Author: Colin McMahon, Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


RIO DE JANEIRO -- The neighbors have their doubts about the woman called 
Dona Vitoria, but no one disputes that the drug trade thrives in their 
neighborhood or in this city where she has become a hero.

Dona Vitoria is the pseudonym given to a Rio woman who, fed up by what she 
says was the lack of response by police, videotaped from her apartment 
window a stream of drug sales on the hills outside her home. She gave the 
tapes to a local reporter, and the publication of photos from them won for 
Dona Vitoria recognition, relocation and, with good reason, witness protection.

The tapes also brought police storming into the Tabajaras section of the 
Copacabana neighborhood.

"This is an occupation," said Mario Vaz, an officer from the state of Rio 
de Janeiro's military police. "We have an emergency post here. We have 
another up the hill. And we have a command post for the whole area."

That police have to "occupy" a neighborhood in the middle of Brazil's most 
renowned city exposes one of the defining and dismaying aspects of Rio.

Tabajaras is a favela, a collection of mostly poor and working-class 
families living mostly on illegally occupied land. Local heavies and 
criminal outfits control daily life.

The hillside communities can be no-go zones for police. But then something 
happens to break a tacit truce, or violence within a favela becomes too 
much to ignore, or public pressure forces the police to move in. So they 
do, often backed by armored vehicles and helicopters.

That is happening this month not only in Tabajaras. Police just stormed 
into Dona Marta Hill and into Vidigal, a large favela that boasts 
spectacular views of the beaches of Leblon and Ipanema. The latest warring 
in Vidigal has featured not just assault rifles but also heavy machine 
guns, grenades and other explosives. To say the fighting sounds like parts 
of Baghdad is no exaggeration.

Tapes Help Nab Suspects

Tabajaras is neither as large nor as violent as Vidigal. Vaz's "emergency 
post" is, basically, a police sport-utility vehicle. He and his partner sit 
out of the rain in an alcove next to a shop that sells snacks and soda pop. 
The police arrived there at the end of August, right after Dona Vitoria's 
story brought the heat down on their bosses.

In a series of raids, police arrested more than a dozen drug suspects, many 
of whom were identified on the videotapes. Several police officers seen 
taking money from the traffickers were arrested as well. And since the 
police arrived, the hill where the deals had been made has been cleared.

Vaz, however, does not pretend that the dealing has stopped. "They have 
moved somewhere else," he said.

"We have no problems with the residents here," said Vaz, 29, whose machine 
gun is standard issue for the military police. "They wave. They don't say 
bad things to us. But they don't really talk to us either."

"They are afraid to be seen talking to the police," said his partner, 
Leonardo Reis, 31. "I don't blame them."

Doubts about Dona Vitoria

Dona Vitoria was afraid too. As the story goes, she put film on her windows 
so the traffickers could not see in. Then she cut a small hole in the film 
and rested her video camera on a pile of books to record the comings and 
goings of men, women and children as they bought, sold and consumed drugs.

Stills from the video published in the newspaper Extra show children--not 
just teenagers but boys younger than 10--smoking marijuana and snorting 
cocaine. Some pictures show middle-age women stopping by for a fix. Some 
show boys and young men brandishing automatic weapons.

Residents doubt that Dona Vitoria is really in her 80s, as the police and 
newspapers said. They also doubt that she did this all alone, over 18 
months, and suggest someone in the news media or police was working with 
her. But they cannot argue with the results.

And Rio is lauding Dona Vitoria. The judge who ordered arrests in the case 
praised her courage. A columnist in the daily newspaper O Globo declared 
her Rio resident of the year. And a court has ordered the state to pay 
damages because her apartment plummeted in value as police refused to do 
anything about her complaints.

Tabajaras, meanwhile, is quiet.

"You can go anywhere you like here now, it's safe," Reis said. "Just don't 
come here when we are not here."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Elizabeth Wehrman