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Rio de Janeiro Drug Traffickers' Power is Growing, Unchallenged By the State - 2002-06-20

The recent murder of a Brazilian journalist by drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro has underscored the growing power of the drug gangs in the city's slums. The well armed gangs now constitute a kind of parallel power to the state.

A large rally this past Sunday to mourn and protest the death of journalist Tim Lopes is one sign of the increasing concern by Rio de Janeiro citizens over the growing power of the drug gangs.

Mr. Lopes disappeared on June 2 in a Rio de Janeiro slum while working undercover investigating reports of drug dealing and the sexual exploitation of minors at parties hosted by drug traffickers. According to captured suspects, the journalist was seized by a local drug lord, tortured, and then killed with a samurai-style sword. His body was then burned.

The crime shocked the nation, and drew renewed attention to the power wielded by drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro's shantytowns. One out of five of the city's residents live in these slums, called "favelas" many of them built on Rio's picturesque hillsides. Life for many of these one million favela-dwellers is dominated by the drug gangs, which operate with impunity in the slums.

In the favela of Vila do Joao, 18-year-old Alexandre says there are usually shootouts every night between rival gangs. Everyday there is shooting, he says, beginning between five and nine o'clock at night. No one, he says, can stay out on the street - you go inside or you get shot.

The power of the drug gangs is so great that police seldom venture into the favelas, except in large numbers. The local drug lords are powers unto themselves, dispensing justice and controlling who can enter their neighborhoods. They enforce their will with a vast array of weapons, including AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles, grenade launchers, and automatic pistols.

Rubens Cesar Fernandes, who heads a grassroots organization working to end violence called "Viva Rio", says the drug gangs are becoming more daring in challenging government authority. But Mr. Fernandes does not believe the traffickers are as yet organized or cohesive enough to become a parallel power to the state. "It is not like a state in a civil war where you have two sides, organized and well structured," he said, "It is not like a Colombia situation where part of the territory of the country is really a different state. Here you have a more anarchic situation where you have different groups disputing power locally, disputing among themselves and disputing with the state. So it is more the anarchy that comes from the lack of law, justice, and basic rights established in the neighborhoods. So it is a neighborhood phenomenon."

Even though there is a heightened concern about organized crime, statistics show that violence has diminished in Rio de Janeiro since the mid-1990's. In 1995, the number of homicides in the state reached a high of 8,400. Last year, it was about 40 per 100,000 inhabitants.

This is still very high, compared to cities like New York where the murder rate is 7.8 to 100,000. State deputy Carlos Minc says drug-related violence and the power of the traffickers have become intolerable.

"Today in Rio, the people living in the territory controlled by the drug traffickers are forced to live in silence, under siege," Mr. Minc said. "Their daughters are raped and if they open their mouths they are shot and then burned like in Auschwitz. This is terror. What is needed is a new strategy in combating drugs, because this war in the favelas now is lost. For every trafficker killed, there are eight to take his place."

The governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Benedita da Silva - a black woman who grew up poor in a favela - says she recognizes there is a security problem, but refuses to acknowledge there is a parallel power operating in the favelas. She told the Globo newspaper recently that there needs to be a new a security strategy. She says that under her three-month-old government, police are entering the slums more frequently to enforce law and order.

Viva Rio's Rubens Cesar Fernandes agrees a new strategy is needed. He says while work is being done to improve social conditions in the favelas, it has not yet broken the cycle of violence. "In every neighborhood you go to you find dozens of small the churches, by NGO's, by state agencies, by the businesses in Rio.," he said. "Much investment in these neighborhoods. The question is that they do not make a pattern, they do not make a road out of the vicious circle. And that depends basically on a security kind of strategy where the police must become a key actor together with those working towards the future, rather than being caught in the vicious circle of the shootouts. It is a shootout syndrome where the police is being shot at and is shooting back, and the people get caught in this circle of senseless violence."

Until this happens, Rio residents, especially those in the favelas, will continue living in fear.