Monday, October 19, 2009

On the Weekend Violence in Rio de Janeiro

This past weekend, violence in Rio's favelas flared up, with ugly results:

Some 2,000 police officers patrolled the streets of Rio de Janeiro Sunday after a bloody confrontation between rival drug gangs and authorities that killed 14 over the weekend, including two police officers. [A third died this morning, according to reports in Brazil - Trend].

Two suspected drug traffickers were killed and four were arrested in Sunday's operations by Rio de Janeiro's military police, the official news agency Agencia Brasil reported.

Of course, these events have led many in both Brazil and abroad to comment on what this means in light of Brazil recently being awarded the 2016 Olympics. Boz broached this subject earlier today:

It's not credible to think that Rio's drug gangs have a unified grand plan of Olympic disruption that they're implementing. However, their ability to create a climate in insecurity and harm Rio's reputation is certainly a greater factor with the Olympic announcement. I expect them to continue to challenge the security forces and attempt some more high-profile attacks in the coming year.

I absolutely agree with that first part of the paragraph. This wasn't some coordinated response to the Olympics; hell, it wasn't even an uncoordinated response to the Olympics. Some of the news stories have insinuated this clearly indicates that this is a threat to Olympic athletes, as the favela in question (Morro dos Macacos) is "only five miles" from where one of the villages will be, not taking into account that that's five miles by air, not five miles through mountains, lakes, buildings, and the world's largest urban forest. In grand terms, this means pretty much nothing in terms of the Olympics or the athletes.

I find Boz's final sentence more interesting. I certainly think the drug gangs will challenge the police, but it's not like this is the first time that they've challenged police,given the military tactics used against civilians in the favelas, where it's not uncommon to see images like this one (from the CNN story):

A policeman advances through an alley of Rio on March 25, 2009, during an anti-drug operation.

Indeed, I once ended up on a city bus that passed through a favela in downtown Rio, and while it was as uneventful as most bus rides (and less eventful than some that never went near a favela), I was still alarmed to see military men with assault rifles poised just hanging out on street corners, alert but not in battle. You want to know the dynamics of the favelas? That picture hits it perfectly - a small kid who probably has nothing to do with the drug trade, a very well-armed individual from the military police, and somewhere unseen, actual drug lords. And kids like the one in this picture, along with old women and plenty of others untouched by the drug trade, are often killed (with some estimates hitting the thousands of innocent civilians dead).

But back to Boz's comments. Yes, they will challenge the police, and they have in the past, but, in spite of the major framing of this story, that's not what this event was. Yes, a police helicopter was shot down. But this wasn't even a case of police raiding a favela and violence erupting. This was a battle between drug gangs. The helicopter was shot down when flying over the favela to see what was going on, and as Boz himself points out, the helicopter getting shot down wasn't even intentional; according to reports, the bullets that hit the helicopter were basically stray bullets, and they weren't even from .30 caliber machine guns (though I agree with Randy that it's disturbing the gangs have this kind of weaponry, though again, it's not like the police haven't shown a propensity to murderous actions, too). With all due respect to Boz, he mistranslates that passage of the article, which reads [and I translate], "the helicopter was hit by light fire - nothing that was fired from a .30 caliber machine gun or that could have been caused by a rocket-propelled grenade found in gangs' arsenals."

So while some pitch a fit over Brazil getting the Olympics over Chicago in light of this weekend's events, they're completely out of touch with what the history, the context, and the meaning of this weekend's events. As Boz says, it wasn't some coordinated (or even uncoordinated) response to the Olympics; it wasn't even an attack initially launched on the police. It was gang warfare located away from the sites of the future Olympics that ultimately included the deaths of 3 police officers as well as at least 14 "traficantes" (though, as always, that title and/or figure is questionable). Is it a threat to the Olympics? No more so than every other incident of favela violence has been a threat to the Olympics, which is to say, not at all. The favela violence is kept to the favelas, and regardless of what you think of that, it does not mean anything to the Olympics yet. And the Brazilian government is not just ignoring this problem - today Lula pledged an extra $60 million to Rio to help combat violence in the city. This wasn't an internal "protest" to the Olympics, and it wasn't an event that should make anybody reconsider awarding Rio the Olympics. It simply was what all the other incidents of favela violence have been - sad episodes of violence, with plenty of blame to go around.