Violence In Brazil Escalates, Army Is Deployed To Neighborhoods

Sep 26, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 8:52 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Rio de Janeiro promotes itself around the world as Brazil's marvelous city, a city that every year holds a huge, crazy Carnival. This year, though, Rio has seen a surge of violence. In one neighborhood, it's so serious the army has been deployed. NPR's Philip Reeves says this is denting the confidence of a city that is deeply proud of its reputation for hospitality and fun.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you all ready?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Woo.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A huge crowd is dancing, their arms swaying aloft.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: This is Rock in Rio, a festival in the giant park built for last year's Olympics. Seven-hundred-thousand people turned out over two long weekends to see Maroon 5, Guns and Roses, Alicia Keys and many other stars. On this night, the crowd includes Alino Firmiano, who's wearing a broad smile.

ALINO FIRMIANO: I came to see Justin Timberlake, my future husband.

REEVES: Oh, your future husband...

FIRMIANO: Yeah, exactly.

REEVES: Does he know about you yet?

FIRMIANO: Not yet.

REEVES: Firmiano's 31 and a Carioca. That's the term for people who are born in Rio de Janeiro. She says her home city means everything to her.

FIRMIANO: I really love my city (laughter).

REEVES: Tell me about that. What is it you love?

FIRMIANO: Because just look around. People - you can stop, and you can have friends in 30 seconds. You can have a hug. You can have lunch. I lived two years outside Brazil, and I didn't have a hug.

REEVES: No one hugged you in two years.

FIRMIANO: No (laughter).

REEVES: Roberto Caetano, a law student, says he loves Rio as if it was his mother but adds...

ROBERTO CAETANO: I have to be honest with you. Sometimes in Rio, I had to put my cell phone in my underwear (laughter) just for safety, you know?

REEVES: Yet while Rock in Rio was going on, so was this...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

REEVES: ...Thirteen miles away in Brazil's largest favela, or shanty town.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Caramba.

REEVES: This firefight recorded by residents was one of many ignited by a leadership conflict between a drug lord and a rival. After six days of trouble, the authorities sent in nearly 1,000 soldiers to surround the favela.

The place is called Rocinha. Rocinha's a vast jumble of houses stacked up a hillside, threaded through with tiny alleys. At least 100,000 people live here, including Ivan dos Santos, who's been here for nearly seven decades...

IVAN DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...And hasn't seen violence like this in years. Dos Santos' son Gilvan also lives here with his 13-year-old boy.

GILVAN DOS SANTOS: (Through interpreter) My son gets really frightened. He sees these armed guys passing by. We have to hide him and keep them down on the floor to make sure he isn't hit by a stray bullet.

REEVES: Rio de Janeiro has long been blighted by violent crime. It recently hosted the World Cup and Olympic Games. Ahead of those big events, the authorities launched a so-called pacification program to try to impose government control in favelas run by drug gangs.

JULITA LEMGRUBER: It has failed completely.

REEVES: Julita Lemgruber, a former police ombudsman, believes that's because the government has no long-term security policy and has lost credibility thanks to a long running scandal that's exposed many of Brazil's top leaders as corrupt.

LEMGRUBER: It's very clear that the drug dealers are watching a lack of authority, a lack of legitimacy of the government, of the police. It's a vacuum of power really.

REEVES: These days, there are shootings in some favelas pretty much every day. Robberies and murders statewide are also on the rise.

LUCILIA RICON LANCE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Lucilia Ricon Lance is the wife of one of the 103 police officers killed in Rio this year. Two young men held up her husband when he was off-duty, grabbed his police weapon and shot him 15 times with it. Afterwards they posted selfies, posing with the gun because, says Lance, in Rio's favelas...

LANCE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Killing a cop makes you king. Lucilia Lance is also a Carioca who thinks her city's ruined by rampant corruption and crime.

LANCE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: She compares Rio with a fruit, beautiful on the outside but rotten within. Talk to many Cariocas, though, and you'll often find them struggling to reconcile their love of the place with their fear of it. Their pride in their town remains strangely intact even in Rocinha, the favela with troops on the streets. Gilvan dos Santos worries about his 13-year-old boy who hasn't been to school for days because of the violence. Yet ask dos Santos what he thinks of his city now, and this is his reply.

G. DOS SANTOS: (Through interpreter) I like this place, you understand? If it wasn't for this violence, we'd be out barbecuing and living very well and in harmony.

REEVES: Rio is still a marvelous city, he says, no matter what. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.