Moral Low Ground

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3,000 Police, Soldiers “Pacify” Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s Largest Slum, without Firing a Shot

Some 3,000 police and soldiers backed by helicopters and armored vehicles took over Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum on Sunday, seizing control from powerful drug traffickers who had ruled the community for decades.

Rocinha, Rio's most famous favela. (Photo: Leszek Wasilweski)

According to Agence France-Presse and the New York Times, the occupation of Rocinha went remarkably well, without so much as a shot being fired by either the invaders or the traffickers who often defend their favelas, or slums, with their lives. Vidigal, a nearby, much smaller favela, was also “pacified.”

The operation, dubbed “Shock of Peace,” took place among an ambitious, years-long push to clean up Rio’s favelas, which number more than a thousand, as the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics approach.

Sunday’s pre-dawn operation was carried out by elite police squads (led by BOPE, the Battalion for Special Operations of Rio’s Military Police) as well as Army and Navy units. It was an imposing, intimidating show of force more befitting a war zone than an urban operation.

But then again, “war zone” was, until recently, an apt description of many of Rio’s favelas, where drug-related violence has claimed countless lives over the past three decades. Middle and upper-class Cariocas, as the city’s residents are known, have lived in a more or less constant state of fear, with many afraid to leave their homes.

But many say that the decision to raid Rocinha was more a symbolic action than anything else, especially since that particular favela, which sprawls upwards from some of Rio’s most exclusive neighborhoods, has been relatively peaceful.

The author, left, with traffickers in a Rio favela in 2007.

“This occupation has a strong symbolic value by its location, in Rio’s richest area, and completes a cycle of occupations in the southern zone of the city in those tourist areas most directly linked to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games,” Professor Ignacio Cano of the Rio de Janeiro Federal University’s violence analysis center explained to AFP.

In fact, the Rocinha operation was more than just symbolic. Two of the favelas top drug lords, Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, aka “Nem,” and Sandro Luiz de Paula Amorim, also known as “Peixe” (“fish”), were captured, a major victory for police. Dozens of guns, a bazooka, grenades, around a ton (907 kg) of illegal drugs, fake police uniforms, slot machines, more than 20,000 pirated CDs, ninja masks and 75 motorcycles were also captured.

Authorities say the “pacification” operation will allow the government to not only assert control but also to provide much-needed social services like sanitation and trash collection. That will be a challenge; Carlos Roberto Osorio, the municipal secretary for public services, told O Globo that “Rocinha is a city that grew in an unplanned manner, on a steep slope and with few access roads for trucks and equipment.”

So far, authorities have set up 19 police pacification units (UPPs) in various favelas, including Mangueira, which is near Maracana stadium, site of the World Cup final. The government plans on establishing another 21 UPPs. “We cannot stop regaining territory,” Rio de Janeiro state governor Sergio Cabral told AFP. “The program is planned and will be implemented… this will be accomplished.”

Hopefully it will be accomplished as peacefully as Sunday’s operation in Rocinha.

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