Drug gangs still reign in Rio shantytowns that haven't seen pre-World Cup crackdowns
'Pacification' is credited with reducing crime but accused of using heavy-handed tactics
Residents carry on their lives with drug deals on corners and teens carrying guns
One former trafficker says: "My community lives in a constant war zone"
Women shake their hips seductively and children dance in flip-flops to booming electronic music while young men brandish pistols and the occasional assault rifle.
It’s just another funk party in one of the lawless favelas on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
Since 2008, when authorities launched a so-called “pacification” effort, police have stormed dozens of slums to squeeze out criminal gangs and make the city safer for residents as well as the hundreds of thousands of tourists expected for the World Cup, which starts next month, and the 2016 Olympic Games.
Initially, police targeted shantytowns closest to tourist hot spots, the iconic favelas that cling to hills overlooking Copacabana and Ipanema.
But far from the sunny beaches and pretty promenades that line the coast, drug gangs still reign supreme.
Even during the day, the drug business is brisk and carried out in the open. Armed men, often just teenagers, stand watch at corners and communicate by radio as housewives, workers and children coming home from school walk by.
Sales are made from a plastic table erected on a corner, piled with little baggies of marijuana, hashish, cocaine, crack, even an inhalant containing ether. Money is stuffed in plastic containers.
The local dealers agree to talk while they carry on with their trade.
“What we sell most is the famous white powder, the 20-real hits,” says Jorge as he holds up little baggies of cocaine, worth about $8.
A hit of crack costs about $2 and a baggie of marijuana about $4.
They say most of their customers are locals, but they increasingly have more clients coming from Rio’s wealthier neighborhoods because of the heavier police presence there.
Jorge, 22 with bleached hair, wears board shorts and flip-flops and has an AR-15 slung over his shoulder.
“I was born in the middle of trafficking. I didn’t see any other alternative,” he says. “If I could choose a profession, I would be a fireman or a doctor.”
For decades, Rio’s favelas were neglected by authorities, considered no-go zones even by police. Rival drug gangs fought for control. They became judge, jury and executioner – and a part of daily life.
Jorge says: “If I told you I wasn’t afraid of dying it would be a lie. If I told you I avoided death, it would be a lie. I wouldn’t be here trafficking if it were true.”
But he says he thinks the greater police presence would make life worse for his community.
Under the controversial pacification program, police have reduced crime and killings in the communities where they have seized control from drug gangs, but they have also come under fire for strong-arm tactics and excessive violence. In some cases they have been accused of murder. Police are investigating some allegations but say they are isolated incidents.
In the hundreds of far-flung shantytowns that haven’t yet been included in the program, feelings are mixed.
A community organizer, who asked not to be named, said a police presence should just be the first step for greater participation in city life.
“What we need here are opportunities for our young people, like job training and internships,” he said. “The police just come in here wanting to break heads.”
But for Wagner, a former trafficker now interned at a drug rehabilitation shelter, pacification would be a way for his community to break free.
“My community lives in a constant war zone. There are people who support the traffickers, but they always want something in exchange: They want your son or they want you to leave your door open so they can escape from the police. They always want something,” he says.
But most people seem to agree that the police first have to convince communities they won’t just pack up and leave once the World Cup and Olympics are over.