Pubdate: Sun, 11 Feb 2007
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2007 The Observer


Tom Phillips reports from the front line in Rio de Janeiro's favelas, 
where the body count soars as paramilitaries and traffickers vie for supremacy

Night falls on the shadowy back alleys of Cidade Alta, and at the 
heart of the favela Gilberto Martins and his men are preparing for war.

At the back of a small, smoke-filled bar, a middle-aged man sits 
alone flicking through a thick wad of cash and occasionally fiddling 
with three revolver magazines stacked on the table in front of him. 
Outside a queue of teenage drug traffickers stare nervously down the 
road, with M16 assault rifles slung across their chests and their 
fingers clasped around the triggers.

It is just after 10pm in Cidade Alta, a rundown housing 
estate-cum-shantytown on Rio's northern outskirts, and there is 
hardly a resident in sight. The community is preparing for the 
invasion. This is the front line of Rio de Janeiro's latest 'war on 
drugs' - a battle between the drug traffickers and a growing army of 
paramilitary vigilantes seeking to drive their enemies, literally, 
into the sea. The shop shutters are down as the drug traffickers push 
out on to the streets. Cidade Alta, a normally bustling community 
that is home to more than 20,000 impoverished Brazilians, has been 
transformed into a ghost town.

Until recently Cidade Alta was best known for its fictional violence. 
It was here, amid the sprawling mishmash of tower blocks and 
breezeblock shacks, that the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles 
shot much of his Oscar-nominated film City of God, a tour through the 
violent underbelly of gangland Rio. The favela is now at the centre 
of its own drama - an explosive power dispute which could mark the 
beginning of a new cycle of violence.

With names like the Men in Black and the Galacticos, Rio's 
paramilitaries - now thought to control at least 92 of the city's 
600-odd favelas - are a mysterious collective of off-duty police 
officers, firemen, prison guards and other volunteers, disillusioned 
with the city's growing lawlessness. Their aim, they say, is to drive 
the drug traffickers out of the slums, slash crime levels and impose 
law and order in a notoriously violent city. If the state cannot 
protect its citizens, they say, we will. 'All we want is for our 
children not to have to grow up seeing drugs and guns,' one militia 
leader said in a recent interview with a Brazilian magazine.

By night on the eerie back streets of Cidade Alta such social 
advances are hard to detect. Even in the darkness it is possible to 
make out thick punctures in several of the buildings - the result of 
a recent gun battle between paramilitaries and the traffickers from 
the Red Command faction that control the favela and are led by 
Gilberto Martins, a drug lord better known by his nickname 'Mineiro'.

Comparisons between Rio's death toll and that of official war zones 
are common. Last year there were around 6,000 homicides here, many 
drug-related. The city even now boasts its own website - Rio Body 
Count - which models itself on the North American 
and aims to document rampant levels of homicide across Rio de Janeiro 
state. 'The Brazilian government has made a big effort to say that 
Rio is a place of beaches, beautiful bottoms [and] physical beauty,' 
its creator, Andre Dahmer, told The Observer last week. '[But] there 
are areas in Rio de Janeiro that are veritable war zones.'

Until recently the bloodshed in Rio was largely restricted to clashes 
between police and rival drug gangs. Now heavily armed vigilante 
groups are throwing a new factor into the equation. In Rio de Janeiro 
they are called the milicia

It was early on Saturday when the milicia arrived in Cidade Alta. 
According to locals, about 60 men, all dressed in black and many 
masked, poured up the hillside into the heart of the community. They 
forced the area's drug traffickers - members of the Red Command 
faction - to strip to their underwear and parade through the favela 
before declaring the shanty town paramilitary territory.

Two days after the milicia seized control of Cidade Alta, the 
traffickers returned, expelling the Galacticos, as the paramilitaries 
had dubbed themselves, and killing one. In all, seven men were killed 
in the struggle for the district and eight injured, among them 
several unarmed shanty dwellers.

Residents now believe that revenge will not be long in coming. 
Brazilian press reports suggest that the vigilante group is 
recruiting a larger force to launch a second offensive on Cidade 
Alta. So while the favela's drug bosses silently stockpile weapons to 
help resist a second paramilitary attack, the local people stay 
nervously indoors.

Sitting in his small air-conditioned office inside Rio's Legislative 
Assembly, Marcelo Freixo looks a worried man, with thick blue bags 
under both eyes. The newly elected state deputy and veteran human 
rights activist says he fears the expansion of Rio's militia could 
'create a whole new scenario of violence' in Rio, similar to the 
growth of right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia.

'This is very serious,' he says. 'It is starting to get very close to 
the situation in Colombia.' Freixo compares the militias to 
mafia-style organisations, seeking to create their own 'parallel 
states' within Rio to make money. 'Militias are criminal groups. They 
dominate territory, they take control of the sale of gas, of local 
transport networks, and they charge for security,' he says. 'And on 
top of that they kill people who position themselves against them.'

After a series of recent clashes between traffickers and militia in 
which several innocent bystanders were killed, Freixo requested a 
parliamentary inquiry into the groups. Yet he is pessimistic about 
the chances of such an investigation being approved. There are too 
many political interests at stake, he says, suggesting that many 
high-profile politicians in Rio are somehow connected to the 
militias, which are becoming, he argues, a 'criminal wing of the state'.

'The militia is about the absence of the state,' he said. 'It solves 
nothing - it is a symptom of war. They are substituting for the 
state. This is the start of what you could call a war.'

As Rio's paramilitaries grow in stature and gain more public 
exposure, the authorities are beginning to speak out against them. 
Rio's governor, Sergio Cabral, admitted last week that the continued 
presence of such groups would be 'the end of the world' for his city. 
'We will not tolerate it... In Bogota paramilitary groups were 
accepted by communities and today there are numerous problems because 
of this. We cannot tolerate a parallel state, whether it is that of 
the drug traffickers or the militias.'

Yet with the newspapers filled with graphic reports of violence and 
around 20 per cent of the population living in slums ruled by 
ruthless drug lords, many view the vigilantes as a lesser of two 
evils - despite reports of the gruesome ways paramilitaries are said 
to have disposed of their enemies, dismembering them and throwing 
them into the Atlantic.

Several leading politicians have even offered thinly disguised 
support to the militia. In a recent interview with the Jornal do 
Brasil newspaper, Rio's mayor, Cesar Maia, said that 'compared to 
drug trafficking anything is better'.

'I don't think this persecution is fair,' state deputy Flavio 
Bolsonaro told Rio's Assembly last week. 'Should we condemn the 
policemen who are there trying to exorcise from the middle of their 
families criminals who will never be rehabilitated? One cannot simply 
stigmatise the militias,' he argued. 'There are a series of benefits in this.'

One thing is certain: Rio's traffickers have been thrown on to the 
back foot by the paramilitary surge, at least temporarily. 'There 
were more of them and they had better guns,' one drug trafficker 
recently expelled from a favela in western Rio by the Men in Black 
told The Observer. 'What could we do? We fled.'

It is now just after 2am and the Bar do Pretinho, a cramped shack at 
the heart of Cidade Alta, is filled with a handful of heavily 
inebriated men and two scantily clad young girls. It is the only 
place still open in the favela - even the 24-hour evangelical 
churches have shut up shop, fearful of new confrontations.

The edgy silence is broken only by the warm gusts of wind that sweep 
across the dusty square and the roar of motorcycle engines as the Red 
Command's heavily armed 'night watch' swings by to check everything 
is under control. 'This shit is crazy,' says one resident, a former 
drug trafficker, leaning against the bar with a plastic cup of beer 
in his hand. He speaks quietly and quickly and glances constantly out 
into the street.

'They [the militia] are just waiting for the dust to settle in the 
media and they'll be back. And if they do come back, I'll pick up a 
gun, too... If they try and invade my community, I'll kill them. They 
come here and fuck with the residents: what am I gonna do?'
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman