Drug Lords Reassert Control Of One Of Rio de Janeiro's Biggest Neighborhoods


For the second day, drug traffickers have ordered a curfew with shops and schools closed in one of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest favelas on Friday, reasserting their control and highlighting the long-term challenges the city faces in maintaining security and order in the lead up to the Olympics and the World Cup. 

Police and traffickers had been exchanging fire for several nights in Complexo Alemão in the Northern Zone of Rio de Janeiro, when messengers on motorbikes began crisscrossing the area on Thursday night imposing a curfew, ordering shops to be closed and preventing over 11,000 students from attending school.

Clashes with police and drug lord imposed curfews like these used to be commonplace in favelas around Rio before the city began its ambitious long-term campaign to “pacify” its long neglected favelas, asserting government control and bringing in much needed services. Complexo Alemao one of Rio’s largest slums with over 60,000 residents, was “pacified” in November of 2010, in a violent and dramatic series of conflicts between Brazilian forces and narco-traffickers who had taken refuge in the sprawling hillside neighborhood. By December, it was officially on the list of communities back under the Brazilian rule of law, but the reality is more complex. Residents are reticent to speak on the record, but off the record they’ll tell you that the traffickers still hold considerable sway from the shadows in their communities.  

Since the campaign for pacification began in 2008 the number of homicides in favelas in Rio has decreased dramatically and the government has been slowly improving government services in pacified areas. But many residents are skeptical of government presence. They are doubtful whether the government will stay after the Olympics of 2016, and resentful of what they say are “arbitrary and indiscriminate” infringements on their liberty by police forces. They are afraid to report crimes for fear of retribution from traffickers, and lack lack faith in the follow-through by police. As a result, there is often a sort of power vacuum in which the brutal mafia justice of the drug lords has receded, but real law and order has yet to take deep root.

These kinds of reassertions of trafficker violence only serve to undermine residents’ faith in the government’s ability to truly change the favelas. But Paulo Henrique Moraes, coordinator of the Pacification Police in Complexo Alemão, says the UPP has been “quite effective” and that this is only “another expression of discontent by a few recalcitrant drug traffickers” who are trying in any way they still can “to show their presence”.

The challenge for the government is to show residents that citizen’s safety and liberty are their top priorities and that these occasional outbreaks of violence are not signs of trafficker’s resurgent power or a return to the violence of years past.