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Brazil’s Street War Not for Resale Abroad
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As much as their attention may be focused on the stinging cold-war battle being fought by the two Koreas, Pentagon analysts have got to be paying close attention to what’s going on in the steamy slums of Rio de Janeiro. After all, this is revealing itself to be an unprecedented tropical remix of the Pentagon’s long – infinite – war applied to global urban poverty.

First, let’s take a look at the chronology. A week ago, two major Rio narco-trafficking gangs – the Red Command and Friends of Friends – launched a series of urban terror attacks, burning cars and buses and hitting police stations; the whole thing was orchestrated by some of their leaders locked up in an out-of-state maximum-security prison, basically in reaction to a 2008 government program that so far has established police pacification units (UPPs) in 13 of Rio’s 1,000 favelas (shanty towns).

Unlike in previous instances, the Rio police response was swift – maximum force in the streets. Then the federal highway patrol stepped up its operations, the central government sent marines and then army units, and the federal police also got into the fray. An essential measure has been to transfer gang leaders to an even more remote maximum-security facility near the Amazon rainforest, 3,500 kilometers from Rio.

Last Thursday, a 200-strong contingent of the no-nonsense Special Operations Batallion (BOPE) – a sort of Brazilian SWAT – took the Vila Cruzeiro slum, while at least 300 hardcore hoodlums left on foot and on motorbikes for the nearby, sprawling, hilly Alemao shanty-town complex, as big as 10 Rio neighborhoods, with a population of 400,000.

Police/military units started surrounding the complex – while a deadline given for the narco-traffickers to “surrender with arms in the air by sunset” expired on Friday (those few who did were convinced by their families and by Christian priests). Finally, on Sunday morning, came the go-ahead to swarm into the Alemao, which was conquered in less than two hours by 2,600 police and soldiers, using tanks and marine-corps armed personnel carriers, and supported by helicopters.

In a distant echo of American surges in Pashtun lands, BOPE specialists have realistically admitted that they have encountered far less resistance over the hills than expected. They are now firmly established literally at the top of a hill – with a strategic view of all surrounding areas; a Brazilian flag is now flying on the spot, symbolizing the state retaking what until now was lawless territory.

At least 200 narco-traffickers may still be hiding in family homes, keeping civilians as human shields. The police/military have vowed to search each of the 30,000 homes in the slum complex – with each team assigned its own perimeter. An immense amount of drugs – including at least 40 tons of hash and 200 kilos of cocaine – and loads of weapons have been seized, with lots more to come.

Tropical COIN

Pentagon analysts will immediately recognize this as no-holds-barred MOUT – Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain – territory. And experts at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corporation – which helped to set the strategy for the Vietnam war in the 1960s – may mistake this shanty-town complex in Rio for a “liberated zone in urban shanty towns” when it was in fact, until now, a deserted-by-state-power zone. Anyway, the Rand gang would obviously be thinking about Baghdad’s Sadr City, where Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army made life hell for the American occupier. (No wonder Sadr City’s squalid main boulevard was called Vietnam Street.)

Most of all, US military strategists won’t fail to recognize that what has just taken place in Rio illustrates what the Journal of the Army War College “prophesized” years ago; that “the future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world”.

Quite a few police/military specialists in Rio are in fact stressing that this is a never-before-seen urban operation, not even in Iraq (and certainly not in Gaza, where an occupying army may use the same tactics against a cowed, slum-style population). Some Brazilian army units may have used their experience as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti – but still they never had to clear a slum in Port-au-Prince.

The takeover of the Vila Cruzeiro slum and the Alemao slum complex also rank as classic David Petraeus-style counter-insurgency (COIN) – as in “take, clear, hold and build”. “Take” has been fast as lightning; “clear” may take days if not weeks; “hold” has been solemnly promised by state and federal authorities; but “build” is a much more complex and long-term proposition.

There are reasons to believe that this COIN Brazilian-style might work where the American version was not exactly successful in either Baghdad or the Sunni triangle or in southern Afghanistan. The swift, massive, coordinated show of force did destabilize organized crime; the element of surprise was key. Moreover, perhaps for the first time ever in Rio, this police/military invasion of a slum was not regarded as the action of an occupying army – but as the state affirming its will and empowering law-abiding citizens.
The sight of tanks in the streets finally sold the whole operation to a tired, jaded public – not only the society at large, but especially the slum dwellers themselves. And the sight of once powerful drug lords scurrying around like cockroaches demystified their power. Thus the Mao Zedong “fish among the sea” element deserted the narco-traffickers; unlike the Taliban in Pashtun lands they simply could not count on local popular support, or at least the Mafia-style “law of silence” they imposed. Even the narco-traffickers’ own families advised them to surrender (those who didn’t may be trying to escape through the sewage system).

The background

It took the Brazilian state at least four decades to muster the necessary political will for this massive offensive, coupled with ample police/military coordination and widespread support of public opinion, to rout what is one of the three top Rio narco-gangs.

But this is only the beginning.


The nexus between crime and politics in Brazil for a long time intertwined police, the judiciary, the executive, the legislature, private enterprise and criminals around the same rackets. It’s what has been described as “the Brazilian delinquent state”. Ringleaders – including mayors, senators, judges, police and district attorneys – made much more serious money than, for instance, the favela-based drug rings.

This process started during the 1960s military dictatorships in Latin America, which stimulated an organized crime boom by creating the institutional framework for criminal freedom. Under Cold War logic – courtesy of the Pentagon – the priority of the dictatorships was internal repression. “Micro-criminality” was deemed irrelevant. The result of at least two decades of negligence was catastrophic. Police were left with no investigative capacity.

Social anarchy, unstable governments and an absurdly high concentration of wealth were the hallmarks of the neo-liberal, post-dictatorship era. Crime flourished not only in Brazil but all across South America, with Colombia setting up powerful, regional mafias. In Italy, the legendary Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) operation became the paradigm for the repression of mafia activities under the framework of a democracy. In Brazil, as usual, things were and remain much more complicated.

The military dictatorship ended in 1984; that was the same year that a hurricane of blow started sweeping through sensuous, tropical Rio – that is, Brazilian/Colombian narco-traffickers unloading pure cocaine at ridiculous prices into an incipient consumer market. The explosion of demand led to the consolidation of a group called Red Command, extremely powerful in the Rio favelas and associated with Colombian and Paraguayan narcotraficantes.

Then in the 1990s, globalization turbo-charged a remix with special effects – courtesy of the Italian and Russian mafias, which for their part diversified into kidnappings and weapons trafficking. In Colombia, the fragmentation of drug cartels led to a proliferation of smaller groups, much harder to detect. And the same happened in Brazil. The Red Command gang, for instance, gave birth to a splinter group.

Now, with Brazil collectively engaged in a major drive to become an essential global player, there seems to be a consensus that the time is right to start tackling the big picture. It will be a long and winding road, full of treacherous, slum-dwelling alleyways, before the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games – where Rio will be the superstar. So cleaning up is a must.

This does not mean just sending in the tanks to take over a slum. What comes afterwards is the real test; to purge the penal system of abysmal corruption; to change legislation which in many ways protects criminals; to better patrol the country’s borders to minimize the non-stop flow of drugs and weapons; to pay more decent salaries for police officers; to try to break the connections between those hoodlums in the favelas and “invisible” higher-ups; to invest in infrastructure and services for poor people; to stop stigmatizing them just because they are poor; to invest heavily in education. Meanwhile, a touch of MOUT will do no harm. But – Pentagon be warned – only because this is no foreign occupation army.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brazil 
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