29 November 2010

It is WAR! Unless it is something else…um complexo

For those that have been living under a Barack there has been more violence that usual in Rio over the past week. As I was headed to the market in Gloria yesterday morning a troop transport stuffed with camouflaged soldiers rolled to the Zona Norte. I had a quick snapshot of what it must have been like to live in Brazil under the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Later on in the day, I found the scene on the beaches of Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon to be like any other November weekend. Sun, beer, altinha, fute-voli, bunda e sunga, mar, ambulates, areia, paz, e relax. But everyone was talking about the same thing: the massive military action to “pacify” the Vila Cruzeiro and the Complexo do Alemão – Rio’s drug trading center and second largest favela complex.

Last Monday, bandidos associated with Rio’s very well entrenched and organized drug trafficking factions began to burn cars and buses, carrying out a general and decentralized campaign of mayhem that was begging for a response from the state. The large media outlets claimed that this sudden outburst was a response to the continued installation of UPPs. I have my doubts about this claim as only 13 of Rio’s 1000+ favelas have been “pacified”.

The military responses over the following 6 days have changed forever the profile of drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro. What the media is calling the “War for Rio” returned two massive areas of the city to state control after years of a parallel, autonomous form of government. How and why this happened, as well as the residual effects of this week will take a long time to sort out, but I’ll give it a go from where I sit (Center of Rio) and with the information I have at my disposal. (I also highly recommend reading these commentaries: Luiz Eduardo Soares; Gustavo Barreto).

I’m going to start with the premise that this is not a “war”. In a war, there are generally two sides battling, some casualties on both sides, and official declarations of intent. In this case, there were ZERO fatalities on the side of the invading forces and a very ambiguous death toll on the side of the drug trafficking factions. A 14 year old girl was killed inside her home, struck in the chest by a stray bullet and a reporter was shot in the arm. There was undoubtedly more “collateral damage” including the general casting aside of human rights that always accompanies massive military action. Many people (via fbook, twitter, conversations) were demanding the summary execution of all the drug traffickers, calling for helicopters to fly in a give a general strafing, celebrating the sudden death of individuals with as much sentiment as playing a video game. Others have been calling this state-sponsored terrorism. I thought it might be a kind of civil war, but have come to the realization that it’s a class struggle, where the state is intervening to correct some “inadequacies” in the social, geographic, and economic structures of Rio de Janeiro in order to better prepare it for the free circulation of capital that mega-events both stimulate and demand. This is the military version of Ireland’s structural adjustment plan.

The violence in Rio has many of the characteristics of war but cannot be rightly identified as such. It could be part of a larger training regimen for Brazil’s police forces, an opportunity to test new systems of centralized command in preparation for the gazillion mega-events coming to Rio, or simply an opportune time to obtain one of the necessary geographic objectives to establish the rule of law in Rio de Janeiro. Since the announcement of the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro has been pushed into a continual state of emergency where extraordinary measures have become “necessary” instruments to “prepare” the city for these events. The World Cup and Olympics are invoked, chanted, mantra-fied, in order to justify just about anything that will accelerate capital flows and secure urban space.  Without question, the “taking” of the Complexo do Alemão is a fundamental piece of the puzzle and one that can be elaborated with a quick anecdote.

When I was returning to Rio from Buenos Aires, coming into Galeão at night, the flight path took us from West to East over Rio. The final approach brought us along the South face of the Complexo do Alemão. As we passed, first one, then two, then three high powered green lasers began to flash by the windows. It was evident that the plane was being tracked as it landed. Were these lasers attached to high powered rifles? RPGs? Are there anti-aircraft guns hidden in the hills? It would only take one airplane going into the ground as a result of gun-fire from the Complexo to ruin the tourist economy, put an end to the mega-event wet-dream of the Brazilian Brahmans, and to install a general panic about the capacity of the state to control the beast it has so diligently created. As I watched the lasers flash in my window, it occurred to me that I was sitting in a nice, meaty, flammable, spectacular, undefended target.

The Face of Terror: Mister M
His mom convinced him to turn himself in, the only one to do so.
How many people died this week? More than 100? 200? We’ll never know. Why did the violence flare up this week, so soon after the elections? Theories abound. Were election promised unfulfilled? Did the orders to start “blowing shit up” come from the prisons as a reaction to the continued installation of UPPs? Were these autonomous collectives out for some incendiary fun all over the city? Why start this fight now? What are the immediate results and the next steps?

Economic and geographic logics are fundamental here. Let’s look at some consequences of this week’s violence.

More than 40 toneladas of marijuana were found in the military operations this week. 40 tons. That is 80,000 pounds of weed, people. To my knowledge, no one has yet undertaken a scientific analysis of the street value of 40 toneladas (my estimate is US$20-25 million), but it is certainly enough to get the entire world high for the month of the World Cup. This massive seizure has permanently altered the nature of the drug economy in Rio. If we assume that a large part of the power wielded by traffickers was their ability to exchange maconha for money and weapons, then this was a major setback for organized drug trafficking. I don’t think the police expected to find as much as they did. I don’t think that the plan was for them to take the Complexo this week, but the opportunity presented itself and they had to take it. This also makes me think that there was no coordinated plan of systematized violence on the part of the drug factions, or else they would have taken their cash crop with them to other parts of the city. Could the provocations have been a huge miscalculation that resulted with the end of armed drug trafficking in Rio?

What are the police going to do with all that pot? If we assume that the invasion of the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro has cost the state a lot of money (another thing that is never discussed), wouldn’t it make sense to try to recuperate some of that money through the reselling of the spoils? What better time to legalize marijuana than when the state has just come across a bumper crop? By legalizing, regulating, and selling the drugs obtained in this raid the state has a chance to regularize and make permanent the changes that this week’s military operations as well as recuperate the money spent on the raid. The structural change has already occurred; the sensible action would be to make the social change at the same time.

The scope and scale of arms encountered in the Complexo do Alemão surprised even the police. Life will be much better for residents with only one armed group running the show. Let’s hope there is going to be an increased presence of the state in regard to urbanization, education, health, and environment. The day after the invasion of the Vila Cruzeiro, the mayor announced a program to invest R$400 million in projects for the Penha region. This is a good start, though it is only one third of what the state is investing in the Maracanã. If these projects were so ready to fly into the press, why weren’t they announced until the day after the invasion? Who was blowing up all those cars and buses anyway?

As Raquel Rolink noted in a talk she gave at a Seminar on the Challenges of Mega-Events last week, a state of war is the ultimate instance in which the state can impose its authority through its refusal to impose the rule of law. That is, the state makes exceptions and exemptions to the law when there are states of emergency. In addition to the permanent emergency status that Rio is in because of the deadlines imposed by mega-events, the extra emergency of “war” allows for the further suspension of normalcy.

What this week’s battle in Rio reminded me of was the USA invasion of Iraq. This was a show of highly technologized, overwhelming force against an enemy that had been portrayed to be deadlier than deadly, more organized than the police themselves. The television outlets gave too many details about the kinds of tanks and weaponry employed (a spectacularization of power as the traficantes fled helter skelter into the kills, running for their lives). Detailed maps showing the routes of invasion, the locations of drug and arms caches, and high definition images of night vision goggles, BOPE training, sequences of command, and all of the accoutrements of a war gave me the sense that all of this was happening in a far off country, where I could watch the bombs fall and see the flames rise, but not have to deal with the untidy mess of exploded limbs and charred remains. This “war” is produced and consumed and instantly historicized (naturalized) like any other. OGlobo works with BOPE and the Rio PM in the same way that CNN and Fox worked with the US DOD.  The terminology used, the smug images of Sergio Cabral (Brazil’s George W.) overseeing the operation from on high, the video montages, the absence of critical perspective…it’s all the same. Shock and Awe, baby. Come on down to Rio for the World Cup y’all – we’ve done got rid of the band-ee-toes.

In her talk, Rolink also highlighted the role of the state in “unlocking” value. This is undoubtedly an important element of what is going on in Rio. We have see this with the installation of the UPPs, where rents and land values have increased by 400% in the favelas and more than doubled in the asfalto neighborhoods around them. The “pacification” of Alemão, combined with some confused projects like the teleferico (which turned into a symbol of conquest as the Brazilian flag was hoisted), will undoubtedly allow for the continuation of real estate speculation in Rio, allowing money to flow from areas in which is was trapped by the presence of the drug traffickers and the absence of the state.

The “Battles” of Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro had to happen if the governments of Rio de Janeiro were to ever get control of their urban space (no matter the secondary and tertiary motives). The installation of UPPs in the favelas of the Zona Sul has concentrated arms and drug trafficking in the major favelas of the Zona Norte and Rocinha. Whatever one thinks of the way in which this has all happened, the fact is that last week, the Complexo do Alemão was under the martial law of the drug dealers, and this week it is under the control of the state. This is an important and critical moment in the geo-political history of the city that will have profound and rippling effects.  Next up is Rocinha, which received words of warning all week from the PM: “Keep quiet over there, lads, if you know what’s good for you.”

No word about how the governor and mayor are planning on dealing with the dozens of favelas controlled milícias, (organized crime run by cops that give the big bosses political support), or the other favelas occupied by armed drug factions.

I don’t know what more to say about this other than that it’s complicated, historically situated, confusing, contradictory, and apparently inevitable.


yuseph said...


On Iraq comparison, see Pepe Escobar's latest article.

Dr. Christopher Gaffney said...

thanks Yuseph!

Rodrigo M. Nunes said...

complicated and confusing, i think, is the best way to describe it. I just can't shake this feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with what's going on. I mean, ultimately getting rid of armed traffickers is a good thing, but I have to wonder about the underlying motivations of it all, and what it means for the future. Are just sanitizing the city for the mega events? Are we just creating the conditions for the market to thrive? Or are we really engaged in a process of social unification? The latter sounds unlikely to me.
What I hate the most is the whole attitude towards human rights: that it only gets in the way of getting rid of the bandidos. Shit man, rule of law is supposed to protect us all, and t aply to all equally. Bandidos don't get off the hook because of human rights, they get off the hook most times because the law is corrupt. Can't amend an error with another error.
Finally, what about the whole "I love Rio" campaign in the Zona Sul? I hate that shit. It's I love the Praia and the LAgoa, and don't come into my beautiful areas, you favelados da zona norte.



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