The largest security operation in Brazilian history unfolded over the weekend, during which almost 2,700 paramilitary troops pushed into Complexo do Alemao, an ‘impenetrable labyrinth’ of shantytowns, or favelas, in northern Rio de Janeiro. The operations followed a week of gang-related violence there which killed nearly 40 people. Hundreds were arrested or detained in the days leading up to the operation on Saturday and Sunday, with police exchanging gunfire with armed gangs amid torched cars and buses.
The violence was thought to be initiated due to frustration by gang leaders at the steady gains made by Brazilians authorities in the ‘retaking’ of roughly fifteen drug-gang-controlled favelas in the city. Security forces have begun to establish ‘Pacification Police Units’ (UPPs) in these areas to prevent the return of the gangs, and such urban counter-insurgent tactics have appeared to show positive results, with many favela residents, usually unreceptive to the often violent paramilitary actions of the security forces, beginning to welcome the presence of the UPPs. ‘We now perceive that our population feels more protected and respected by the police with the creation of these ... peace units,’ said the president of the website for Rio’s biggest favela.
Gang leaders were given until nightfall on Saturday to surrender and the massive paramilitary operation, which included helicopters and armoured vehicles, commenced early Sunday morning. The security forces expected heavy resistance from the hundreds of known drug traffickers in the area, given that only a few dozen surrendered prior to the ultimatum. Reports suggest, however, that the fighting was relatively light, with many fleeing or still hiding in the ‘densely populated area’. Roughly thirty people have been detained thus far, including ‘Zeu’, the violent criminal leader accused of brutally torturing and killing a Brazilian journalist, Tim Lopes, eight years ago. In addition to the arrests, large caches of weapons and drugs have been discovered, including 200 kilograms of cocaine and almost 40 metric tons of marijuana.
As the bulk of the operation winded down and forces began the methodical push to ‘flush out’ holed-up gangsters, Mario Sergio Duarte, the chief of the military police in Rio, said, ‘We won. We brought freedom to the residents of Alemao’, while Eduardo Paes, the mayor of that city, thanked him and his police for ‘giving [Rio] back to its citizens’.
The openSecurity verdict: Motivation for continued pressure against the gangs is due in large part to the upcoming World Cup games in 2014 and the summer Olympics in 2016, to which Rio won hosting rights roughly a year ago. At the time, many observers (and indeed, competitor cities) questioned whether the security situation in the city was stable enough to host such a substantial world event. The publication of an article in the New Yorker magazine that same week, documenting the violent daily life of a well-known Rio gangster, did not help the city’s cause.
Since then, the authorities in Brazil, weary of the daily violence and the lack of control the state wields over the favelas, have stepped up their efforts to make Rio safer. The city is said to be ‘undergoing a renaissance’ and the favelas are an integral part of this strategy. For instance, Cidade de Deus (City of God), the violent Rio favela made famous by the popular film of the same name, had 29 murders in 2008. After the police entered the area and set up a permanent local police force of hundreds of officers, the murder rate nose-dived, with just one murder this year. The government has brought in a health clinic and other crucial infrastructure. Progress is being made in a number of other areas.
Five days ago police found a note near a torched bus in Alemao that read ‘with UPPs, no Olympics’. It is abundantly clear that the gangs are aware of their influence as the horizon of both the World Cup and Olympics and the subsequent massive influx of foreign tourists draws near. The incentive of the police to crack down on such threats and vigilantism is strong. Tackling the gangs, however, is delicate business these days. The city must be secured though Brazilian officials are conscious that the world is watching, and abusive, heavy-handed police tactics will be witnessed by many.
Some human rights activists have criticized recent government efforts to squash the gangs, citing the often deadly effects on the vast majority of the favela residents who are peaceful citizens. The head of one local NGO observed that the world is ‘intent on knowing whether we are handling [the gang violence] as civilized people’. He said the government in Rio had created an ‘urban Vietnam’. According to one investigation, the combined police forces in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil’s two largest cities, kill ‘more than 1,000 civilians a year’ in the course of security operations.
Moroccan forces accused of deliberately targeting Western Sahara civilians
A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleges that Moroccan forces intentionally targeted civilians in an attack on a ‘protest camp’ in Western Sahara, a disputed area that Morocco annexed when Spain withdrew roughly 35 years ago. The country subsequently fought a guerrilla war against ‘The Polisario Front’, a Sahrawi rebel movement outlawed in Morocco and which still fights for the independence of the territory.
The report claims that Moroccan troops attempted to close the Gdeim Izik camp, a collection of 6,500 tents created by around 20,000 Sahrawis, on 8 November. The camp was set up to protest against inadequate living conditions in the territory. HRW claims that the troops deliberately attacked civilians in the camp and then went after Sahrawis in their homes in the regional capital of Laayoune. Twelve people died in the violence and reports of abuse, including violent beatings, were recounted in detail by released detainees.
Protests occur as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood claims election fraud
As least two people have died in violent overnight protests as the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition bloc in the Egyptian parliament, claims it won no seats in yesterday’s parliamentary election. Human rights NGOs observed that the turnout for the elections this weekend was much lower than those five years ago, and pointed out that there was ‘strong evidence’ that many opposition supporters were harassed and prevented from voting. The lead-up to the election saw skirmishes between backers of the Brotherhood and the security forces, as well.