Brazilian Gangs Take Turf Wars Out of Slums
Brazilian Gangs Take Turf Wars Out of Slums
Even Upper-Class Areas Invaded by Traffickers
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 15, 2002; Page A37
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Hundreds of eager children on school field trips shuffled into the Rio zoo on a typically sunny morning two weeks ago. Heading for a stage where actors were about to put on a children's play, they giggled their way past playful monkeys and marveled at magnificent indigo macaws.
Then the bullets started to fly.
In the middle-class neighborhood just outside the zoo's fence, a fierce gun battle broke out between police and well-armed members of one of the drug-trafficking gangs that control large swaths of this city and many others in Brazil, Latin America's largest country.
Bullets from automatic weapons soared past black bears, flamingos and a South American mammal known as a coati. As police helicopters circled overhead, gunfire shattered the glass doors of the zoo's research center not far from where the children's play was to begin. About 1,500 panicked students, teachers and tourists ran for the exits.
One police officer was shot in the head before the gunfire subsided and remains hospitalized. "By the grace of God, no one was killed that day, but the damage was still done," said one zoo employee who asked not to be named. "The violence has gotten so bad. No place is safe here anymore."
To Brazilians, the incident symbolizes a dramatic escalation in their country's struggle against "the parallel power" -- the increasingly violent network of drug-trafficking gangs.
In the early 1990s, Brazil was mainly a transit point for illicit drugs produced elsewhere in South America. Now it's the world's second-largest consumer of cocaine after the United States, and that trade is overseen by cocaine "commands" that have grown in wealth, power and sophistication. Today, they are equipped with automatic rifles, grenades and rocket launchers -- arms sometimes newer and better than those of some Latin American armies.
Gangs that were once confined to steep, hillside slums are extending their reach into Brazil's middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. People here talk of the "Colombianization" of Brazilian cities.
"The drug traffickers have never been more organized and audacious -- they don't seem to have geographic limits anymore," said James Cavallaro, a director of Global Justice, a human rights group in Rio. "The result is a collective panic and fear spreading among the middle classes. The poor have lived under the power of the commands for a long time, but the upper classes are not nearly as used to this."
Many experts attribute the surge in cocaine consumption to the deliberate creation of a side market here by traffickers who for years have moved drugs from the Andes region through the country en route to Europe and the United States. Cocaine has long been a common party drug among Brazil's upper classes, but its use exploded only with the traffickers' introduction of cheaper forms, especially a type diluted with aspirin and sold in the slums for as little as 50 cents.
The rise of the trade has led to an escalation in turf wars among rival commands for control of profits, and an increase in confrontations with police. In Rio, experts call some of the surge in gang activity a backlash against recent government efforts to crack down on leaders of the commands.
One such incident occurred on Sept. 30. The Red Command -- one of Rio's three most powerful trafficking gangs -- dispatched members on foot, bikes and motor scooters from the hillside slums into the city's wealthiest neighborhoods and business areas, including the famous Ipanema and Leblon districts.
Waving weapons in the air, the men ordered business owners to close shop, taxis to leave the area and street vendors to call it a day. The net effect: Commerce in Rio, a metropolis of 12 million and one of Latin America's largest cities, came to a virtual standstill. Police believe it was a protest against the incarceration of the group's leader, Fernandinho Beira-Mar, who has allegedly used a cell phone in his Rio jail cell to continue running the command 20 months after his arrest.
"What is clear to me is that the government is losing the war against the traffickers -- they are the ones who are in control," said Andrea Quintella, 42, who owns a sewing supply shop in Ipanema Beach and closed it Sept. 30 following threats from command members. "We have never experienced a situation like this before, one where we felt so helpless and vulnerable. There were parts of the city where you thought they couldn't get at you. Not anymore."
In June, traffickers were involved in an early morning assault on Rio's city hall, officials say. Although no injuries were reported, gunmen seeking to show their strength fired more than 100 bullets into the building's facade. They tossed two grenades, which failed to explode.
Turf wars have led to a startling increase in murders this year in Rio. Homicides in the federal state that includes the city jumped to 3,448 from 2,890 in the same period last year, according to researchers at the University of Rio de Janeiro. Overall, people in Rio are about five times more likely to be murdered than people in the Washington metropolitan area.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city and the fourth-largest in the world, the First Capital Command has emerged as the strongest gang. Law enforcement officials blamed the group for a foiled attempt in October to bomb the Bovespa, Latin America's largest stock exchange.
After intercepting conversations between jailed gang members, police on Oct. 21 stopped a car that was carrying about 65 pounds of explosives on one of the major arteries leading to Sao Paulo, where the Bovespa is based. Investigators said the assailants intended to bomb the exchange as a show of force and a warning to police to back off.
About three weeks ago in Sao Paolo, the First Capital Command successfully staged a smaller version of the citywide shutdown of Rio, forcing businesses in a busy commercial neighborhood to close after police shot and killed two gang members.
Brazil, with a population of about 180 million, now consumes 40 to 50 tons of cocaine each year, according to a recent State Department report. (The Brazilian government says the figure is much lower.) That is far less than the 260 tons consumed each year in the United States, with its population of 280 million, but represents a big increase over past years.
Critics such as Argemiro Procopio, a Brazilian professor of international relations, say government officials largely ignored the problem until the tentacles of the drug commands began reaching down from the slums and into wealthier neighborhoods.
In this view, the Brazilian government still views cocaine consumption as mostly a U.S. and European problem and has not recognized its own booming domestic market.
Though police have jailed gang leaders, critics contend the fight is often compromised by corrupt police officers who cooperate with the commands or wage private wars to win a piece of the drug trade for themselves.
The commands are likely to be one of the most important domestic issues facing Brazil's new leftist president-elect, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who will be inaugurated next month and has promised to curb the traffickers' power. Officials say new political will is needed to combine the efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement.
"We should not have waited for them to come down from the [slums]. We should have gone in there before and stopped them before they became stronger," said Marcelo Z. Nogueira Itagiba, chief of the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro State. "But there has been a lack of will to cooperate and really confront this issue. Now we are seeing the result."
On a recent day at the Rio zoo, many of the regularly scheduled field trips had resumed, though many of the groups were smaller than usual and teachers were taking special precautions. Some parents are refusing to let their children visit the zoo, teachers said.
"It's tragic that it has come to this -- here we are with children at the zoo, and we have to be on our closest guard," said Adriana Lopes, 36, an elementary school teacher from the Rio suburb of Nova Iguacu. "But that is our reality now. We are surrounded by violence, which every day is getting worse and worse."