The law of the jungle

In Rio de Janeiro's poorest districts, drug gangs rule and they rule ruthlessly.

By David E. Kaplin: U.S. News & World Report Oct 14, 2002

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. “