The law of the jungle
In Rio de Janeiro's poorest districts, drug gangs rule and they rule ruthlessly.
RIO DE JANEIRO A half hour's drive from the sparkling beaches of Copacabana, Rio's Mare complex sprawls across the landscape, a vast labyrinth of slums marked by rutted streets and winding alleys. This stark, unpoliced area stretches to the distant hills, with block after block of gritty, concrete tenements fitted with leaky sewers and jerry rigged electrical wiring.
Here, as in other slums across Brazil, the government simply does not exist. There is no police or fire department, no high school, and few social services. What passes for law is a kind of jungle rule enforced by roving bands of drug traffickers, most in their teens and 20s, who patrol the streets heavily armed with Uzis, AK 47s, and even hand grenades.
This is terrorism of a different sort. On gang orders, local shops are told when to open and close. Shootings erupt three to four days a week. "We live in a war zone," says a middle aged man who declined to give his name. Last week, the entire city was shut down for a day by the gangs. Intimidated shopkeepers closed their businesses, hotel guests stayed in their rooms, and the stock exchange halted trading.
Within Rio, some 1.2 million people some 20 percent of the city's population live in 764 favelas, as the slums are called. They stand as a grim reminder that despite Brazil's progress the nation now boasts the world's eighth-largest economy- it remains a developing nation with striking disparities in wealth. With no jobs and few prospects, children of the favelas pour into the gangs. A report this year by British anthropologist Luke Dowdney concluded that some 6,000 young people ages 10 to 18 serve as "soldiers" in Rio's drug militias. Young men in the city are five times as likely to die from small arms fire as those in New York or Washington, D.C.
Within the Mare complex, there are 17 separate favelas, and the battles among the rival gangs are murderous. One street dividing two Mare neighborhoods is a virtual no man's land, with residents on either side forbidden to cross under penalty of death.
Votes and violence. Even in this combat zone, election ads incongruously dot the pitted streets. On October 6, Brazilians voted for a new president and scores of federal officials. Attention overseas has centered on which candidate can best fix Brazil's faltering economy, rescued in August by a record $30 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. But for many Brazilians, the key issue is crime and their own security: The violence spilling from the favelas now affects Rio's drivers, who at night routinely run red lights, fearful of muggers who prey on idling cars. Police and prosecutors, meanwhile, are widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual. One anticorruption campaign ad, shown on TV, depicted rats gnawing away at the Brazilian flag.
Since losing one of their own, Brazil's aggressive news media is helping to make an issue of the long neglected favelas. Last June, crusading journalist Tim Lopes sneaked into a favela near Mare, hoping to use a hidden camera to document sexual assaults by the local gang. Discovered by gang members, he was hauled away at gunpoint and sentenced to death by a kangaroo court. The gang
sters sliced off his head with a samurai sword. Last week, the gangs apparently struck again: They stand accused of the midday murder of a publisher in central Brazil.
Shocked journalists have written stories and staged demonstrations, calling for investigations of the drug lords and the police they say protect them. But to little effect. "There is no political will to solve these murders," says Prof. Francisco Karam of the Federal University of Santa Catarina.
The roots of favela violence stem from the 1980s, when the cocaine boom that hit America's inner cities also steamrollered into Brazil's ghettoes. Flush with cash and blackmarket arms, the drug lords soon were running the place. Worse, while in jail the young men of the favelas met veterans of Brazil's urban guerrilla movement, Marxist rebels steeped in ideology and opposition to the state. "From the guerrillas they learned how to organize themselves," says Pedro Strozenberg of Viva Rio, a nonprofit group that works in the favelas. "They learned how to face official power, how to form cells and communicate clandestinely."
The most notorious federation of gangs, the Red Command, is in fact named after their communist teachers. But there seems little ideology in what the gangs practice. "It's becoming worse," warns Karam. "If something isn't done, Rio will be dominated by the drug dealers." For many who live here, it already is. “