Pubdate: Sat, 04 Mar 2006
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2006 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Jack Chang, Knight Ridder
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Battle Over Drug Turf In Rio De Janeiro Slum Shows Lack Of Security

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Since police killed the head of the Friends 
of Friends gang in October, the residents of South America's largest 
slum worried about when the struggle for power would begin. Two weeks 
ago, they got their answer.

More than three dozen members of a rival gang, Comando Vermelho, or 
Red Commando, swept into the streets at the upper reaches of 
Rocinha's hillside sprawl. Hurling grenades and firing automatic 
weapons, they blew up power transformers, cutting off electricity and 
shutting down traffic lights in the middle of the evening rush hour.

They were dressed as state police. In the ensuing battle, six people 
died -- five of them bystanders, including a 14-year-old boy. 
Fourteen people were arrested, mostly as they fled. After three 
hours, fighters from Friends of Friends, known in Portuguese as 
Amigos dos Amigos, managed to repulse the assault. But residents 
doubt that's the end of the fighting.

With millions of dollars in drug sales at stake, Rocinha is too great 
a prize for drug gangs to leave alone. Perched above some of Rio de 
Janeiro's most affluent neighborhoods, Rocinha enjoys easy access to 
rich Brazilians with a growing taste for cocaine processed in the 
slum. To many in this beautiful, crime-plagued city, the bloody 
battle was another painful reminder that entire neighborhoods have 
become war zones. Official government forces are barely present in 
the slum, and early morning dance crowds include scores of teenagers 
carrying automatic weapons. "We're talking about a situation that is 
out of control, where the violence feeds on itself and the poverty of 
the community," said Marina Maggessi, chief narcotics investigator 
for Rio de Janeiro state police. Bank teller Roberta Gomes said she'd 
hoped during the weeks of peace before the Feb. 15 shootout that 
Rocinha finally had seen the end of the gang wars that long had 
devastated the slum.

Like many of her neighbors, she'd expected a turf battle to erupt 
quickly after police killed Rocinha's top gang boss, Erismar 
Rodrigues Moreira, last October. As the Carnaval holiday approached 
last month, hope grew that the worst was over, Gomes said.

Many in the slum even allowed themselves to take pride in Rocinha's 
samba school of musicians and dancers, which had made it into the 
city's top Carnaval parade for the first time in almost a decade. The 
Red Commando assault shattered those hopes.

"We don't see an end to the violence now," Gomes said. "We are always 
expecting something terrible to happen."

On the slum's tense streets this week, several people said Red 
Commando was preparing another invasion. Members of Friends of 
Friends, many of them teens, stood guard with pistols and AK-47 
rifles. Police made no effort to dispel them.

"The fighting always returns; that's something you learn living 
here," resident Josie Ferreira said. "People who think it will stop 
are fooling themselves."

Like other Rio de Janeiro slums, Rocinha's improvised brick buildings 
cover a hill that overlooks some of the city's most exclusive 
neighborhoods, which lie on lower ground.

On one side of the hill are the beaches and glitzy malls of the Sao 
Conrado neighborhood. On the other side are the million-dollar 
mansions of the Gavea neighborhood and the American School, the 
private school that foreign residents and wealthy Brazilians favor.

The route of the assault Feb. 15 took the Red Commando forces along 
the road leading past the American School. They crested the hill and 
quickly destroyed the slum's power transformers. Then they swept down 
the hill toward Sao Conrado and reoccupied blocks they'd lost to 
Friends of Friends nearly two years ago.

With the Rocinha invasion dominating headlines across Brazil, much of 
the public outrage has been directed at the police and their 
inability to protect whole parts of the city, especially the poorest 
neighborhoods. In Rocinha's balance of power, the police generally 
stay at the bottom of the hill while gang members patrol higher up.

The day of the shootout, hundreds of state police officers 
responsible for patrolling slums were at a pre-Carnaval beach 
barbecue about an hour away. Law enforcement officials admitted days 
later that they'd received tips about the planned invasion but had 
been unable to prevent the fighting, even though the invaders had 
crossed much of the city in a heavily armed convoy of vans from 
another slum above the tourist-packed neighborhood of Copacabana.

Police impotence in the gang wars is a fact of life, despite 
occasional successes such as the killing of Rodrigues Moreira and the 
capture of other gang leaders, Maggessi said. Even when gang bosses 
are caught, they often run their networks from behind bars.

"What can a few police officers in Rocinha do against 200 or 300 gang 
members?" Maggessi asked. "What happened in Rocinha is happening all 
over Rio de Janeiro, and we don't have the people to secure every 
slum in the city."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman