Brazilian army invades Rio

Issue 

By Carlos Tautz

RIO de JANEIRO — There are tanks in the streets. The army is ready for combat. Masked soldiers, armed with modern guns, violently search even pregnant women and children of eight and nine years old. Those who don't prove they have a job — mainly people of colour — are arrested.

A description of what happened in the 1960s and the '70s during the military dictatorship? No. All this is happening right now, in 1995, with so-called "Operation Rio", an intervention of federal forces. The objective (in military language) is to protect people against drug traffickers.

In fact, the violence in the former "marvellous city" is now extreme. At least one person is killed every week by a stray bullet. Judges and the police are involved in high levels of corruption. An informal investigation, made by the federal authorities, concluded that 70% of police in Rio are corrupt. The presumed honest 30% have no means to investigate and arrest the dishonest section.

What about the judiciary? According to a popular saying, "Only chicken thieves are jailed in Brazil" — only the poorest are arrested.

From the first days of the operation, from the second half of November up to now, Rio's slums have been invaded by 1000 soldiers; almost 150 people were arrested and kept incommunicado.

A poor worker, Jose Luis Sobrinho, was shot in the arm by a marine with a machine gun on November 20. Sobrinho is hardly a suspect: he is married, has two sons and regular work (he earns just US$200 a month). His "crime" is to live in the slum called Favela do Dende, one of many invaded by the soldiers. An army spokesmen said the shot was an accident.

Human rights organisations have denounced incidents of torture by the army during the slum invasion. A teenager, J.B.F.S., who is 15 years old and lives in the slum Morro do Borel, was on his way to school on November 26. Soldiers decided to inspect him, found neither drugs nor guns, but threatened to drill his neck with a nail if he didn't give over names of local gangsters.

In the same slum, a church was invaded by the army. More than 15 people were beaten up, according to Father Olinto Pegoraro. One could hear the screams from outside.

This repressive environment recalls the years of the dictatorship. Coincidence or not, one of the most famous torture centres in the '60s — the military police barracks of Barao de Mesquita — is being used as Operation Rio's headquarters.

General Camara Senna, a former commander of the operation, called the tortures "excesses". In cases like this, he said, the army could not determine what was going to happen. Senna was lying. The army could (and really did) know what was about to take place.

The state and federal governments signed a cooperation document on October 30 to launch Operation Rio. But the November 13 Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo leaked a secret army document prepared in October, in which the Rio military command outlined its strategy to invade the 449 slum areas — home to 887,750 people — in Rio de Janeiro City.

The document, "Integrated Urban Security Operations — Ideas for Doctrine Formulation", states very clearly that combat operations against the slum dwellers will take place. As well, restrictions on movement and the press, searches, detentions and curfews were outlined. This is evidence that the army could easily ascertain what would happen two months later.

The street operations were preceded by an intense psychological war; Panther helicopters flew over the slums trying to provoke young gangsters. The army knows that most of the drug gangs are made up of people aged between 13 and 21. They are no more than children using modern AR-15 rifles, children who could easily lose control and shoot at the helicopters — the justification for the army to shoot back.

The Brazilian media applauded Operation Rio and played an important role in the days leading up to the action. Television news presented each routine crime as if it was the crime of the century. No other Brazilian state was portrayed like this; only Rio de Janeiro seemed to be suffering from urban violence. It was a propaganda war, conceived by military strategists and executed by the press.

When the invasion began, reporters were forbidden to cover the story due to their employers' line on the secret document revealed by Folha de Sao Paulo. Only then did some journalists go against their papers' editorial line and point to Operation Rio's attacks on human rights.

At the beginning, there was a kind of unanimity about the operation. Of course the middle and upper middle classes (which have access to media) were not supposed to have their homes invaded by soldiers. Only the poorest knew what was going to happen. Slums and houses were invaded with no respect for human rights.

Even progressive institutions declared themselves to be in favour of the military action. The Brazilian Order of Lawyers (OAB), which fought indefatigably against the '60s and '70s military dictatorship, didn't express any firm opposition to the intervention. Rio Alive, a group of middle-class liberals who very recently started campaigning against urban violence in the city, didn't complain about the official violence.

Two months after the operation was begun, the media carried a balance sheet: up until January 17, no important drug trafficker had been arrested; only some guns and less than 10 kilos of cocaine had been seized. The traffickers resumed their trade after the soldiers left the slums. Operation Rio had cost US$434 million and was criticised by the commander of the Brazilian armed forces.

Since the Cold War ended, the army hierarchy has been confused about its role. It has its doubts about simply acting as police. Remember how the Bolivian army (with US advisers) persecuted drug traffickers some years ago? Is this the role for the armed forces of the Third World in the new world order?

Violence in Rio is not a problem that can be solved by the armed forces. Rio de Janeiro and its capital, Rio de Janeiro City, have gone bankrupt after the last 12 years of incompetent administrations. They offer very few jobs to the new generations (and a big part of young people are also oppressed for being black and poor). The only way they find a job is to work for the drug industry, an economic activity that increases in the slums where there are no public services.

Take Vigario Geral as an example. This slum became internationally famous two years ago when 21 of its inhabitants (all of them honest workers) were shot by a death squad composed of policemen.

Almost 20,000 people live in Vigario Geral. There is no police station, no post office, no public services at all. There is only one primary school for 500 children (with teachers very often on strike for better conditions) and one public telephone. What do you imagine children from Vigario Geral do when they grow up and need a job? They are offered one by the drug industry that pays much more than US$70, the official minimum salary in Brazil.

Such is life in every slum. Organised crime is successful because the state is neglectful. Every time a boy is converted to a small drug dealer, should we call in the army? Why invade slums when everybody knows that the modern guns and drugs that are freely sold by gangs are not produced in Brazil? They arrive in Rio via the city's international airport, known as "the Swiss cheese" for the number of security holes and its selective customs office, which inspects tourist bags but turns a blind eye to plane loads full of smuggled goods.
[Carlos Tautz is an independent journalist based in Rio de Janeiro.]

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.