Pubdate: Fri, 12 Aug 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Simon Romero


RIO DE JANEIRO - Fans were lining up to watch an American beach 
volleyball duo square off against Mexico on the alluring sands of 
Copacabana Beach.

But across town, far from the Olympic excitement, the crackling of 
gun battles echoed through the colossal favelas that envelop Rio de 
Janeiro's hillsides.

As soon as he heard the bullets whizzing by early on Tuesday, Richard 
Conceicao Dias, 9, knew what to do.

"I lied down on the floor, hugging my mom," said Richard, who lives 
in a one-room home in the sprawling Complexo do Alemao group of 
favelas with his mother and his three sisters. "She told me, 'Get 
away from the window, close your eyes, dream about something nice.'"

Much of Rio is reveling in the excitement of the Games. Well-heeled 
partygoers are quaffing caipirinhas alongside supermodels and 
astronauts at lavish Olympic soirees hosted by sponsors like Omega, 
the Swiss watch maker. Thousands of soldiers are patrolling Rio's 
upscale seaside districts to ease fears of muggings and other crime.

But in the shadow of the Olympics, a slow-burning war between drug 
gangs and the nation's security forces is taking place. As the 
casualties mount in the favela where Richard lives with his family, 
the Games seem - to them and thousands of others in some of Rio's 
poorest areas - like they are taking place in some distant city.

In a flare-up of fighting over the last week, more than 200 police 
officers stormed into Alemao's labyrinth of alleyways. Calling their 
operation Germania, the European region of warring tribes that was 
once largely subdued by the Roman Empire, the police fatally shot two 
men, while a top counternarcotics official was wounded.

Some of the 70,000 people who live in Alemao, outside the gaze of the 
television crews focusing on Rio's wonders, nurtured hopes of a calm 
as the Summer Games got underway. But then came the gunfire on 
Tuesday, followed by more battles on Wednesday and an outpouring of 
desperation and rage.

"We live worse than those pretty horses used to compete in the 
Olympic Games," said Jucileia Silva, 35, Richard's mother, referring 
to the equestrian competition that took place on Tuesday morning, 
around the time she and her family dove to the floor to escape gunfire.

Security experts who track gunfights in Rio de Janeiro have 
documented dozens of such episodes in favelas like Alemao since the 
Olympics started last week, raising questions about the huge security 
operation for the Games. In one episode on Wednesday, soldiers from 
the federal security force deployed in Rio for the Olympics came 
under fire in the Vila do Joao favela. At least two were wounded, 
including one who was shot in the head.

Before the Games, Mario Andrada, the spokesman for the Rio Olympics 
organizing committee, had boasted that Rio would be "the safest city 
in the world" at this time.

On Wednesday, after the latest violence, he defended those remarks.

"An athlete doesn't regret saying he'll win before a game," Mr. 
Andrada told reporters.

In 2009, when Rio de Janeiro won its bid to host the Olympics, the 
authorities envisioned their self-described "pacification" of Alemao 
and other favelas as a crucial factor in their plan to resurrect 
Rio's fortunes. Soldiers in tanks rolled into Alemao in 2010, 
accompanied by police officers who began building a network of outposts.

For a while, it seemed to work.

As the violence subsided, the authorities constructed a stunning 
aerial tramway network, connecting Alemao's densely populated 
hillsides. Directors scouted filming locations in Alemao for scenes 
in soap operas. A new pub that served craft beers lured outsiders 
curious for a glimpse into an area that had long been viewed as off-limits.

But by 2014, the gangs were aggressively clawing back at the police. 
One of these is the Red Command, which traces its origins to the 
1970s, when imprisoned leftist militants banded together with common 
criminals. The gang built on longstanding ties with Colombian cocaine 
suppliers to exert considerable sway across Alemao and other areas of 
Rio de Janeiro.

The devilishly complex struggle for control of many favelas, the 
largely poor areas that often emerged as squatter settlements in Rio, 
is still grinding on, security experts say. The Red Command is 
clashing not only with the police, but also with other gangs and with 
militias - paramilitary groups largely made up of both active-duty 
and retired police officers.

The result is a dystopian stew of perpetual tit-for-tat conflict.

"Rio is presaging the new wave of conflicts we'll see around the 
world," said Robert Muggah, the research director at Instituto 
Igarape, a research group in Brazil that focuses on security issues. 
He emphasized the protracted nature of the city's drug wars, the high 
casualty rates in certain areas and the repeated deployment of 
security forces that quells - but, at times, reignites - the violence.

"The bullet entered my shoulder and exited through my back," Felipe 
Curi, a police official, said after being wounded during the fighting 
last week. "God in heaven was looking out for me."

For the families caught in the crossfire, all the talk about Olympic 
legacies in Rio seems insulting.

The gun battles halted the iconic tramway in Alemao yet again this 
week, stranding people on their way to work. In the past month, the 
authorities have interrupted the service at least nine times because 
of gunfire. In one episode, a mother taking her children to school 
used her cellphone to film them hovering in fear in a suspended cable car.

Two people, a police officer and a resident, were reported wounded in 
the aftermath of gunfights on Wednesday morning in Alemao. In another 
case raising concerns about violence during the Games, witnesses said 
that gunfire shattered the windows of a bus carrying journalists on 
Tuesday night.

A reporter on the bus, Sherryl Michaelson, who is a retired United 
States Air Force captain, said she had heard the distinct sound of a 
gun being fired. Still, the authorities determined that the damage 
resulted from a rock that was thrown at the bus.

The new police stations in Alemao, once lauded as a sign that Rio was 
on the mend, now function like an archipelago of besieged security 
outposts in a sea where the drug gangs are resurgent. Even during the 
Games, when peace was supposed to prevail in Rio, Alemao's residents 
are finding ways to describe the sense of war that persists around them.

Jose Franklin da Silveira, an author of cordel ballads that draw on 
the rhyming poetry recited by troubadours in Brazil's backlands, 
wrote seven pages of verse titled "The Olympics in Alemao."

The poem, which sells for about $1.50 in the favelas, describes the 
perplexed reactions of Josimar, a boy who confuses the fireworks from 
the Games' opening ceremony with the gunfire that still plagues Alemao.

As he jumps from one rooftop to another, Josimar displays an athletic 
prowess that will never be harnessed outside Alemao. Instead, the 
boy's skills lure the attention of gang leaders who are eager to recruit him.

"In my stories, I write about our biggest fear," said Mr. Silveira, 
56. "It's the fear of stepping outside our homes."

Paula Moura contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom