Tue, Dec 14, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Euphoria over slum raid in Rio turns to distrust

Residents have accused the police of abuses — including robberies and violent entries into their homes — as officers searched for guns, drugs and money

By Alexei Barrioneuvo  /  NY Times News Service, RIO DE JANEIRO

Illustration: Yu Sha

Flanked by officers holding assault rifles, Jose Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro’s security chief, strolled through the streets of Complexo do Alemao, just days after the police and military had stormed the notoriously dangerous slum and retaken it by force.

It was a historic walk, the first time he had stepped foot in the slum in years, underscoring this city’s newfound willingness to wrest away areas that have been violent refuges for drug gangs for more than three decades.

Residents watched stone-faced as Beltrame passed. No one applauded or rushed to shake the hand of the man who has orchestrated the program to “pacify” Rio’s slums ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Instead, a 54-year-old mother confronted him for several minutes, lecturing him that a Military Police officer had entered her home, pinned her against her kitchen sink and demanded her son’s money.

“My son is an honest person and this is his salary,” she said in an interview.

The officer “wanted to take my camera, but I did not let him take my money or my camera. So he took my bananas and ate them as he left,” she said.

One week after the Alemao operation, the culmination of a weeklong street battle against drug gangs that claimed dozens of lives across Rio, residents were viewing the security presence through cautious eyes.

Gone was the initial euphoria when the police entered the community of 120,000 people on Nov. 28, prompting small children to frolic in a former drug trafficker’s rooftop swimming pool. By week’s end, residents had accused the police of dozens of abuses, including robberies and violent entries into their homes as officers scoured the slum for guns, drugs and money.

After a week of searching here and in another slum, the police said they had recovered about 31 tonnes of marijuana, 314kg of cocaine, more than 400 pistols, rifles, machine guns and grenades, but comparatively little cash: about US$68,000. All of the money, moreover, was recovered by the army and the federal police — Rio’s own forces turned in none — raising broad suspicions of police corruption.

“They have been showing you drugs and arms, but where is the money?” asked Rafael Correia, 22, who works at a furniture store in Alemao. “We had tons of money here. Complexo do Alemao was a money mine. So did the criminals leave here with all that money? Or where is it now?”

Even military officials have expressed concern their soldiers would be “contaminated” by the “culture of corruption” inside Alemao, a high-ranking military officer acknowledged. And despite the community being surrounded by about 2,600 personnel from the police and the military, most of the traffickers somehow escaped, fueling an investigation into whether officers helped some of them get away.

The aftermath of the operation to retake Alemao, a complex of several slums Beltrame has called “the heart of evil,” has reinforced concerns among analysts and police experts that Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral’s “police pacification” program may be achieving only part of what is needed to bring lasting peace to Rio. While the vast majority of Rio’s residents support the program, which involves taking over the slums and then installing a community police force, little is being done to reform Rio’s notoriously corrupt police officers.

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