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Brazil: The Shadow of Urban War

Rodrigo de Almeida writes in openDemocracy:

At this moment, millions of people across the American hemisphere are enthralled by the spectacle of the fifteenth Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. The festival of sport on 13-29 July 2007 involves 5,000 athletes from forty-two countries – the biggest such event Brazil has hosted since the epic 1950 world cup football finals. But at the same time, the host country (and indeed the host city) finds itself once again absorbed by the serious domestic issue of endemic urban conflict in its poor, overcrowded favelas (shanty-towns).

What is the best strategy to win the war against drug traffickers – the criminals that have threatened the security, confronted the governments and frightened the people (residents and non-residents alike) from thousands of favelas in Rio? To be sure, nobody knows well what to do. Neither officials nor experts, neither the police nor Brazilian citizens know the answer to this question. Yet positive proposals for a way out are being made. This is a big problem, but it is not a blind alley.

The latest clash between the police and drug traffickers in a huge shanty-town known as Complexo do Alemão, in Rio de Janeiro began with a “mega-operation” by the police on 27 June 2007, the latest phase of a strategy launched on 2 May. It has exposed again one of the most serious weaknesses facing this country: the lack of a legitimate authority that can guarantee the welfare of people, particularly in Rio and São Paulo, the two biggest Brazilian cities. This is an old story for Brazilians: the country seems to exist in a never-ending conflict between criminal gangs and the state. The major innovation is the action of the government, which some observers even consider a turning-point in the crime issue. For the first time in many years, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro (in this case, Sérgio Cabral) has had popular support and won praise for his approach.

In a seven-page article entitled “The necessary war”, Veja, the biggest Brazilian magazine, states that “Rio starts to reverse the present state of affairs by carrying out the biggest operation of combat against traffickers in the country”. Época, another magazine, summarised it as “an innovative attack”.

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