Pubdate: Wed, 10 Jan 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Author: Roger Cohen, International Herald Tribune
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil is not for beginners. That was a line of
Antonio Carlos Jobim, the musician who was the father of the bossa
nova movement, wrote "The Girl from Ipanema" and knew that the
languorous sensuality of his country that he captured in that song was
only one aspect of the story.

Another has been on lurid display of late with the killing of more
than two dozen people, including seven incinerated on a bus, since
violence led by drug gangs erupted in Rio on Dec. 28. President Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva marked the beginning of his second term this
month by calling the slaughter "terrorism."

His choice of words upped the ante, but the stakes in Brazil's war
that will not speak its name have been clear enough for some time.
Official statistics put the number of killings in the state of Rio
alone at 6,620 in 2004, 6,438 in 2005, and 5,232 in the first 10
months of last year. That's 18,290 violent deaths in less than three

You can look at this figure in several ways: as more than six times
the number of American deaths in the Iraq war since 2003; as about
half the estimated 36,000 people killed annually by firearms in all of
Brazil; or as the consequence of combining extreme wealth and extreme
poverty in a single poorly policed metropolitan area of 11 million
people awash in cocaine and other drugs.

No, Brazil is not for beginners. It is not what it seems. There are
wars and wars. This one can seem quite invisible.

On the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, the well-heeled try to
banish growing anxiety about "insecurity." Grilled shrimp are sold on
skewers and coconuts are cut open with clean sweeps of a knife and
bright plastic beach balls glisten in the light.

The ocean beside which the wealthy bask is also visible from many of
the 752 shantytowns, or favelas, that are Rio's ubiquitous urban
stains. The water lures; it shimmers; it deceives. The reality in the
slums is not of space and sunlight but of confined lives often broken
before they have begun.

Think of this city as a child's picture book with jets landing and
yachts passing and traffic sweeping along the waterfront and
vegetation sprouting beneath bold outcrops of rock from which
hang-gliders jump and loop toward the glittering bay. There's enough
here to inspire any kid's wonder and vocabulary.

Or think of it, rather, as the picture book of globalization where
high-rises and luxury shopping malls abut teeming hillside shanties
where 9- year-old kids carry submachine guns, 11-year-old girls get
pregnant and gangs control a multimillion-dollar drug trade that is
the passport to status and name-brand clothes and coveted sneakers.

Rio tends to provoke awe and shame in equal measure. Things have been
going wrong here for some time. The move of the capital to Brasilia
more than four decades ago left the city bereft of its core purpose.
Poor migrants from the Northeast continued to pour in looking for
work, but there was little of it. Often they found only a precarious
perch on the hillsides. They had a view but no income.

Drugs filled the void. Gangs like "Comando Vermelho" (Red Commando) or
"Terceiro Comando" (Third Commando) formed. They were businesses
engaged in the lucrative trafficking of Colombian cocaine, but they
were also purveyors of a powerful legend of the armed struggle of the
poor and humble against the wealthy. A gun was one way to fight
Brazil's skewed income distribution. Gang leaders gained mythic status.

Over more than 20 years the situation has festered. There is no
shortage of reasons. Police officers with monthly salaries of less
than $500 are easily corrupted. Politicians have also been bought.
Prisons are overcrowded. Jail sentences tend to be short. Impunity is
widespread. Inefficiency has been rampant, with authority and
intelligence scattered between competing city, state and federal

As a result, Rio's loveliness has never been without its taint of
blood. More than 18,000 violent deaths in less than three years are a
lot. If the toll were in Baghdad, people would be talking about it.
But the world's attention is a capricious thing.

Sergio Cabral, the newly elected governor of the state of Rio de
Janeiro, is determined to bring his attention to bear on the problem
and change things. The recent spurt of violence has been interpreted
as a warning to him. But he's still promising a Giuliani-like clampdown.

"Our public security apparatus has been contaminated," he says in an
interview. "There's been political contamination, and promotions have
not been merit based. We are determined to professionalize the police."

Cabral, a Sony laptop and a Diet Coke at his side, continues: "By
contamination, I mean corruption. We are going to remove the
corrupted, be severe with them. Those in uniform who use their arms to
serve themselves rather than serve the public are on their way out."

Fighting words: Cabral seems resolute. He has already transferred a
dozen of the most dangerous criminals from local prisons to a newly
built facility in another state, where their influence and ability to
communicate with gang leaders will be reduced. He's acted to integrate
the city and state police in more effective way.

He's promising new roads into big slums like Rocinha, where more than
50,000 people live and the drug trade is worth over $1 million a
month. He's embarking on an ambitious family-planning program in the
slums, making condoms and the pill more readily available.

"We have a situation here where a woman in the shanties is having an
average of five children and just down the road a woman in Leblon is
having an average of two or less," Cabral says. "That's

So much here is. But the tropics are lulling. The sun shines, the
bossa nova rhythms seduce, old patterns prove very hard to break.
Jobim's girl comes walking and the blood gets forgotten again.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake