Brazilian police, backed by helictopers, elite units and armoured military vehicles, have moved into Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum at Rocinha. The move is designed to flush out the violent drug gangs that Brazil’s government believes operate in the slum, ahead of the 2014 World Cup which is being used as a catalyst to try to deal with the huge social problems in the country.
So far, the police operation seems to have been fairly peaceful. The huge slum is a complex place with its own society and rules, and some will undoubtedly welcome the police attempt to move the drug gangs out. Others might be more resistant, and some critics have insisted that once they have been driven out, the gangs will either just move to some other location, or will return en masse as soon as the heavy police presence winds down.
Nevertheless, the Rocinha slum was seen as a huge, out of control spot in a city that in less than three years will be in the global spotlight thanks to the World Cup. The two main gangs that operate in Rocinha are estimated to make up to $50m a year. But clearing the slums will not do much to deal with the foreign tourists and rich locals who make up the gangs’ clientele, and whose continued demand for illicit drugs fuels supply. As long as there are people wanting to buy drugs, there will be people willing to sell to them.
Rocinha: A New Type of City?
Rocinha is one of the better organised slums. Many of its dwellings are now made of brick and concrete, and some are three or four storey high buildings with running water and electricity. There are even banks, shops and restaurants in the slum, and some believe the ‘slum’ designation is no longer really accurate. To get a better idea of slums such as Rocinha, you could read Robert Neuwirth’s book Shadow Cities or watch the 2008 film The Incredible Hulk, which features an impressive aerial sweep of the slum that really captures its size and complexity.
The new Brazilian approach to slums, launched in 2008, is to install ‘police pacification units’ that are intended to keep a measure of order and calm. Whether these really work is open to debate, and critics argue that the country should be doing more to life the slums out of poverty and ensure that their inhabitants are no longer trapped in a life of little or no work, and terrible living conditions.
Earlier this week, Brazilian police arrested Antonio Bonfim Lopes, aka Nem, allegedly one of the country’s most wanted drug lords and a man seen as having ruled the Rocinha slum. With some of his deputies also captured, police were confident that they could flush the remaining gang members out of Rocinha without meeting too much resistance. So far, that seems to be true, as the drug gangs are less keen on fighting and more keen on finding new bases from which to continue their lucrative trade.