Criminals Fleeing Rio Crackdown Set Up Shop In The Suburbs

Jun 7, 2013
Originally published on June 7, 2013 8:27 am

The provincial town of Mage seems a world away from the violence and drug dealing that plague Brazil's larger cities. On a recent afternoon, the central square is a picture of calm. Children play around a fountain; older people sit on the many park benches dotting the area, under the shade of trees.

Mage, about 35 miles northwest of Rio, is close enough that people can commute to the city, which many of them do. Yet it's far enough away that nothing much really happened here in the past. But residents say that is changing.

"There has always been a drug trade, but here compared to Rio, it's always been quite small," one resident says. "But now, there are different people coming in, from different places."

He's from Mage but doesn't want to give his name. In fact, nobody in Mage wants his name used, fearing retribution from the drug gangs.

"There is a general feeling that things are much worse now than they used to be a couple of years ago," the resident says.

He recounts how just the other night he was awakened by the sound of heavy machine gun fire, a sound that's unusual in Mage. And people in Mage say the increased insecurity is a direct result of the "pacification" program in Rio.

Several years ago, in preparation for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, Brazil began its policy of pacification, or sending specialized military police units in to occupy Rio's crime-ridden favelas, or shantytowns. The intention was to provide a permanent presence that would curb violence.

In certain favelas, it's been a success so far. Places once controlled by the drug gangs are now seeing new restaurants open, and there's little or no violent crime.

But the program has had unintended consequences. Critics say the problems haven't been solved. Instead, criminals have only been dispersed to areas where there are fewer resources and less visibility.

Places like Mage.

A Brazilian 'Gaza Strip'

"Criminals in pacified favelas, they are not being arrested. All of them ... are running away," the Mage resident says. "So when these criminals run away they come to Mage, Niteroi, which are cities which are close enough to the capital, but are [unpoliced] so they are free for them to go in and do their business."

Another older man describes the gunfire he also heard the other night.

He lives on what was a pretty quiet neighborhood in Mage — with small, well-tended houses, a few with plants and flowers, others painted varying shades of pastels. The green hills of this mostly agricultural area frame the district.

It's midafternoon and it feels safe and intimate. People here say that until recently this was the kind of place where you would drop into someone's house and grab a beer from the fridge if he wasn't home.

But just up the road is a place they've now dubbed the "Gaza Strip" because of all the violence there recently.

With violence getting closer, the older man says he is worried. The new drug dealers here are 13 ,14, 15 years old, he says, and are bringing new habits with them.

Another middle-aged man here concurs.

"They've had a baile funky dance a few times here now across the railroad," he says. "We never had that before, it's stuff from the favelas in Rio. The new people want to influence the local people."

Funk dance parties have actually been outlawed in many pacified favelas in Rio, where drug gangs presided over them and the music glorified the gang lifestyle. It's a worrying sign to people in the community that they are having them here now.

The man says he's afraid to let his teenage son wander out late these days.

"Here you used to see petty criminals armed with at most a pistol," he says. "Now these new people are carrying heavy weapons."

He explains that Mage has always dealt with violence. It has a high homicide rate, but it's mostly due to an ingrained gun culture that sees people take the law into their own hands when there is a personal dispute.

This is different, he says — the criminality here is still manageable but he worries that in five or 10 years it will be just like Rio. And he accuses the authorities of not doing anything to stop it.

Focus On Rio

A military police officer who is from Mage but works in Rio's favelas agreed to talk to NPR on the condition we did not use his name.

He says the problem for law enforcement in towns like Mage isn't a lack of will but a lack of resources. He says that all the resources are being put into Rio ahead of the games.

"Rio is the focus. Everything goes there and then if anything is left over we get it here," he says. "The priority is the mega-events."

New cars, new equipment, new personnel all go to Rio first, he says.

"The criminality hasn't ended. What happens is that they announce in advance when a favela is going to be pacified and many of the gang members flee," he says. "All of the interior of the state has gotten worse; the criminals migrated here."

And he says there isn't much interest in doing anything about it because places like Mage are far from the spotlight of the upcoming games. This despite the fact there has been a population boom here. A new office in the area for Petrobras, Brazil's state oil company, is drawing new residents.

But he says the government doesn't care about the interior.

And he says glumly he doesn't believe pacification will work in the end.

"It's not sustainable," he says. "It's impossible to pacify all the favelas."

In Rio, activists maintain that the government isn't really trying to make life less dangerous for the poor who live in the shantytowns. They point to the fact that all the pacified areas are around the tourist districts, key infrastructure or vital roads. There are a thousand favelas in Rio, and only a few dozen have been pacified.

The police officer agrees.

"Pacification is for the foreigners, for our foreign image," he says.

The sun starts to go down and the streets of this Mage neighborhood are slowly emptying, except for a lone teenager strumming a Brazilian version of a ukulele as he walks home.

Then, Mage becomes quiet as everyone shuts their doors for the night.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Let's go to Brazil now, one of several stories we're bringing you about crime in Latin America. Brazil has the biggest economy in the region, but it's also one of the most crime-ridden countries in South America.

MONTAGNE: Now, Brazil is set to host two major international sporting events: the World Cup next year, and then the Olympics in 2016, which motivated the city of Rio de Janeiro to start a program called pacification. Military police occupied various shanty towns there to stop drug trafficking and arms dealing.

WERTHEIMER: As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, these efforts have helped somewhat. Violence is down in Rio, but it's moved to the countryside.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: I'm in the central square of Mage. Like any provincial town, this square has a fountain, a bandstand. Children are playing. Older people are sitting on the many park benches dotted around under the shade of trees. Mage is around 50 kilometers outside of Rio, close enough that people can commute to the big city to work, which most of them do, far enough away that not much really happened here. But that is changing, say residents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There has always been drug trade, right? But here, compared to the city, to Rio, it has always been quite small. It's always been, like, local young people. But now what people have been saying is that there are different people coming in, from different places.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a Mage local. He doesn't want to give his name. In fact, no one in Mage wanted their name used, because they are afraid of retribution from the drug gangs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's a general feeling that things are much worse now than they used to be, I don't know, a couple of years ago - meaning the intensity has increased, of demonstrations, of gun power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just the other night, he says he was woken up by the sound of heavy machine gun fire. And that's unusual for Mage. He says people see what is happening here as the direct result of pacification in the state capital Rio.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Criminals in pacified favelas, they are not being arrested, all of them, right. They actually run away. When these people run away, they go to these towns like Mage, like Niteroi, which are cities that are close enough to the capital, to Rio. So they are kind of free for them to go in and do their business.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The policy of pacification began several years ago, ahead of the Olympics and the World Cup. The idea is that specialized units of military police occupy Rio's favelas, or shantytowns, providing a permanent presence that would curb violence. And it's been a success in some places. Certain favelas are more peaceful.

Places that used to be controlled by the drug gangs are now seeing new restaurants open, and there's little to no violent crime. But critics say the problems haven't been solved. The criminals have only been dispersed to areas where there are fewer resources and less visibility, places like Mage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Portuguese spoken) Bap, bap, bap, bap.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another older man describes the gunfire he also heard the other night. He lives on what was a pretty quiet neighborhood in Mage - small, well-tended houses, a few with plants and flowers, others painted varying shades of pastels. The green hills of this mostly agricultural area frame the district.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's mid-afternoon, and it feels safe and intimate. Kids are playing. People here tell me until recently this was the kind of place where you'd would drop into someone's house and grab a beer from their fridge, even if they weren't home. But just up the road, there is now a place they've now dubbed the Gaza Strip, because of all the violence there recently.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says with violence getting closer, of course I'm worried. The new dealers here are 13, 14, 15 years old. And they are bringing with them new habits, he says. Another middle-aged man here concurs. He's the father of a teenager.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They've had a baile funky dance a few times here now, across the railroad. We've never had that before, he says. It's stuff from the favelas in Rio. The new people want to influence the local people, he tells me. The funk dance parties have actually been outlawed in many pacified favelas in Rio, as they were presided over by the drug gangs, and the music glorifies the gang lifestyle. It's a worrying sign to people in the community that they are now having them here. He says he's afraid to let his son wander out late these days.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) Here, you used to see petty criminals armed with, at most, a pistol. Now these new people are carrying heavy weapons. I have a friend who is a truck driver here who saw a guy walking through the streets carrying big guns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mage, he explains, has always dealt with violence. It has a high homicide rate, but it's mostly due to an engrained gun culture that sees people take that law into their own hands when there's a personal dispute. This is different, he says. He says the criminality here is still manageable but he worries.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) In five, 10 years this will be like Rio is now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he says the authorities aren't doing anything to stop it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) The commander of the battalion here isn't taking it seriously. It's because it isn't affecting his kids. There are taking no measures; they don't really care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A military police officer who is from Mage but works now in Rio's favelas agreed to talk to us on the condition we did not record his voice or use his name. He says the problem for law enforcement here isn't that they don't care; it's that all the resources are being put into Rio ahead of the games.

He says, quote, "Rio is the focus. Everything goes there and then if anything is leftover we get it here. The priority is the mega-events." For example, he says, all new recruits now have to do a mandatory two year stint in the Police Pacification Units before being able to work elsewhere. New cars, new equipment, new personnel all go to Rio first.

He says, quote, "The criminality hasn't ended. What happens is that they announce in advance when a favela is going to be pacified and many of the gang members flee. All of the interior of the state has gotten worse, the criminals migrated here." And he says there isn't much interest in doing anything about it because places like Mage are far from the spotlight of the upcoming games.

This, despite the fact there has been a population boom here. A new Petrobras office - Brazil's state oil company - in the area is drawing new residents. But he says the government doesn't care about the interior. He says, glumly, he doesn't believe pacification will work in the end. Quote, "It's not sustainable. It's impossible to pacify all the favelas."

In fact in Rio, activists maintain that the government isn't really trying to make life less dangerous for the poor who live in the shanty towns. They point to the fact that all the pacified areas are around the tourist districts, key infrastructure or vital roads. There are 1,000 favelas in Rio, and only a few dozen have been pacified. The police officer agrees. Quote, "Pacification is for the foreigners, for our foreign image.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's dusk and the streets are slowly emptying, except for a lone teenager strumming the Brazilian version of a ukulele as he walks home. Mage becomes quiet as everyone shuts their doors for the night. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And for the next week, NPR will be looking at crime and violence in South and Central America. Latin American cities are at the top of the most violent places in the world.

WERTHEIMER: The region is bloodied by record high homicide rates, drug trafficking, gang violence, police corruption, and lack of state control. The violence breeds fear and a sense of insecurity, undermining faith in state institutions and leaders and development.

MONTAGNE: In many places criminal groups force businesses, big and small, to pay what is sometimes called a security tax. Many don't even bother to report the crime.

WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, NPR's Mexico correspondent Carrie Kahn will look at the price of extortion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.