SAO PAULO (Reuters) - This weekend’s scenes of urban warfare in Rio de Janeiro may prove to be a crucial -- and positive -- step in Brazil’s economic development if police can retain control of previously lawless slums.
The operation that took control of Alemao, one of the beachside city’s most notorious slums, was about more than just pushing back against drug gangs who set fire to cars and buses during a crime wave that left at least 46 people dead.
The joint raids by police and military forces, which ended with euphoric troops waving Brazilian flags from a hilltop they had not controlled in years, were a sign that Brazil finally may be summoning the willpower and resources to bring down one of the region’s highest crime rates, which has long been a burden on its emerging economy.
The status quo -- drug gangs controlling huge swathes of territory in Brazil’s second-largest city, energy capital and emerging financial center -- is incompatible with the country’s dreams of becoming a middle-class country within the next decade. Rio also is under pressure to clean itself up ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Olympics, which Rio will host.
It remains to be seen whether Brazil’s police, which have a horrible record on human rights and on following up combat operations with effective policing, will be able to consolidate the gains or expand them to other troubled cities.
Yet there are signs that this time is different.
First of all, security forces have pledged to work together to hold onto territory they have taken back from gangs, instead of merely sweeping in, shooting things up, making arrests and then leaving, as has happened in the past.
Since crime started surging in the 1980s, Brazilian politicians often have treated the problem as a long-term sociological ill rather than one that can be solved by police.
But key politicians now appear fully on board with tougher law enforcement, from Rio’s mayor to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor as of January, Dilma Rousseff.
The financial resources for a long-term police presence in troubled areas are also present for the first time.
Companies such as Coca-Cola (KO.N) and local bank Bradesco (BBDC4.SA) have donated millions of dollars this year to help fund police operations, sensing the moment is ripe to combat a problem that costs Brazil as much as $100 billion a year in security costs, lost investment and productivity, according to the World Bank.
Yet the most important element working in Brazil’s favor may prove to be something less tangible: the belief among many Brazilians that the country’s newfound prosperity has truly made anything possible -- even peace in Rio.
“Today we can be certain that when the state really wants something, it’s capable,” said Sergio Duarte, head of Rio’s military police, said after the operation concluded.
‘COURAGE TO CONFRONT’
The climate in Rio and elsewhere in Brazil on Monday was, simply, one of elation.
“Rio shows that it’s possible,” blared O Globo newspaper’s front page headline.
It and other newspapers published photos of neighborhood children doing back flips into a swimming pool in a posh house previously owned by a drug lord known as Polegar, or “Thumb,” as smiling troops with assault rifles looked on.
“I think that from now on it’s always going to be like this,” said Rodrigo Flores, an office assistant who lives in a slum near Rio’s famed Copacabana beach, as he headed to work.
“Wherever the police go, with this reinforcement from the armed forces, the bandits don’t have the courage to confront them, and they end up hiding,” Flores said.
In Flores’ neighborhood and about a dozen other slums throughout Rio, the government has installed the most visible sign of its new strategy -- so-called Police Pacification Units, or UPPs. These units combine community-based policing with amenities such as soccer fields and free wireless Internet to win over hearts and minds in areas where the state previously had little, if any, presence.
It was the success of the UPPs that prompted this weekend’s violence as drug lords pushed out of their home turf by the initiative lashed out at police, hoping they would retreat. Instead, this prompted an even stronger official response.
“There has never been this kind of willpower to fix Rio,” Eike Batista, an industrial magnate who is Brazil’s richest man, was quoted as saying in Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. He has pledged 20 million reais ($11.8 million) annually over the next two years to aid the formation of more UPPs, Folha said.
Other cities have seen similar success including Brazil’s business capital Sao Paulo, which has cut its murder rate by about 70 percent in the last decade.
There is considerable work left to be done, and potential new dangers ahead. Several vast areas have yet to be pacified including Rocinha, Rio’s largest slum with a population of about 120,000.
Drug lords could step up their campaign to intimidate authorities by resorting to car bombs or other terror measures, as has happened in Mexico and Colombia. The police crackdown also could have the unintended consequence of producing more organized -- and, thus, powerful -- drug cartels to attend to customers if demand for narcotics in the slums remains steady.
A study published over the weekend by Sergio Ferreira Guimaraes, an economist for a state social agency, said that drug trafficking in Rio employs more than 16,000 people -- as many as state-run energy giant Petrobras.
Yet, in perhaps another sign of Brazil’s growing maturity, politicians have been careful to balance celebration of the success with warnings that tough times will still come.
“This is just the first step,” President Lula said on his weekly radio program on Monday, asking Brazilians for “plenty of calm, because we will win this war.”
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Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro, Editing by Alexandre Caverni and Will Dunham