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Rio de Janeiro Takes Tough Measures to Expel Drug Gangs


A Baile Funk, a dance party, is underway in The City of God, one of Rio's most violent neighborhoods

A Baile Funk, a dance party, is underway in The City of God, one of Rio's most violent neighborhoods

Rio de Janeiro's hillside favelas, or poor neighborhoods, have been controlled by violent drug gangs for decades. As the city prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, officials are launching a program to expel the gangs and improve conditions for the poor.

It's 2 AM in The City of God, one of Rio's most violent neighborhoods, and a Baile Funk, a dance party, is underway. It's often put on by violent drug gangs that control Rio's favelas, or poor neighborhoods. In the past, drug dealers would strut around showing off their weapons.

But no more. This party was put on by the police, who have driven out the gangs in a program to pacify the favelas. Captain José Luiz de Medeiros leads the Police Pacification Unit, or UPP, in the City of God.

"The first community to receive UPP, the people didn't have much confidence in the police," said Captain de Medeiros. "They were worried about being seen with a police officer or talking to a police officer.

They were worried we would not stay, the drug traffickers would come back, and there would be recriminations."

Rio's drug gangs are notorious for violent confrontations with police, depicted here in the 2003 feature film, "The City of God."

When the police enter the favelas, innocent bystanders are often killed in the crossfire. Rio's police, accused of widespread corruption and extrajudicial killings, are feared in the favelas.

But fears are fading.

The UPP program is also designed to alleviate security concerns ahead of the World Cup and Summer Olympics.

Thirty-five of Rio's favelas have been pacified so far. Military police began entering communities two years ago. The gun battles sometimes lasted weeks and in one case a police helicopter was shot down. Then the Police Pacification Units came in, set up stations in the favelas, and started mending relations with communities.

"Once the UPP goes in, and they have been in there for a while, they bring in the social programs," said de Medeiros.

In some communities, the drug gangs controlled electricity, cable television, and water. Often residents went without. Here, in the favela of Santa Marta, the Police Pacification Unit brought electricity and garbage collection

The change has not gone unnoticed. At a sewing class in Santa Marta, Georgina Dos Santos Damasio told us things have turned around.

"We don't have to worry about stray bullets," she said. "People can take their children to school and can let them play in the neighborhood. And we have more opportunities like this. People are willing to come into Santa Marta and teach us to sew."

But not everyone is optimistic. This woman told us she is against the UPP program, but wouldn't say why. Another resident told us, off camera, "the police in Rio are still the police in Rio, and sometimes people disappear."

According to police, this Baile Funk is part of the answer. For them, it's an opportunity to show they are a positive force in the community. For these kids, it's just a good time.

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