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Rio's new governor targets old problem: gangs

As Rio Gov. Sergio Cabral talks of a crackdown, Brazilian drug gangs have responded by setting fire to public buses and shooting police stations.
Brazilian police officers take up positions during an operation at Favela da Grota in Rio de Janeiro
Police officers take up positions during an operation at gang-plagued Favela da Grota in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday.Bruno Domingos / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Days before Gov. Sergio Cabral took his oath of office this year, drug gangs in this city set fire to public buses and opened fire on police stations in what Brazil's president called the "most violent terrorist act I have ever seen in this country."

It was a welcoming gift for Cabral. Law enforcement officials said the gangs were trying to send the new governor a message: His pledges to seriously tackle the drug gangs would fail, just as the early promises of all of his predecessors had.

Cabral, 44, praises former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's "zero tolerance" policies. He has asked the nation's military to back up local police on the streets of Rio. He has promised to build more prisons, root out corruption in the police forces and improve services in the city's shantytowns, where the gangs have filled the vacuum created by the government's absence.

"There is not a short-term solution to the problems," he said in a recent interview. "They are not just my problems, or the federal government's problems -- we need all levels of government to work together on this. This is my vision."

Cabral's critics fear that his vision is plagued by the same blind spots that have prevented governments from solving the conflict since the 1980s.

So far this year, police have intensified raids in the city's 600-plus favelas, or slums, and the gangs have fought back. Officials reported that more than 1,000 people were killed in January and February -- in line with the murder rate of recent years.

‘An ambitious young man’
"I think Sergio Cabral is an ambitious young man, and if he solves the problem of violence in Rio, he'll become a national figure," said Alba Zaluar, who heads the Center of Violence Research at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "But what's happening now is exactly the same thing we've seen before. There is a vision here that says providing security is like fighting an enemy in a war, and it simply does not work."

The conflict, which began more than a generation ago, has outlasted successive administrations. In 1994, for example, Rio Gov. Nilo Batista also asked for military intervention in the favelas. A few years later, Gov. Anthony Garotinho got the nickname "The Sheriff" for his vows to confront the drug gangs.

Cabral, an ally of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has called on the federal government to send the nation's army and navy to Rio to support local civil and military police units. The military would not directly confront the gangs, he said, but instead would perform other security duties that would free up more local police officers to carry out raids. Cabral said he would keep discussing the details of a possible deployment with the Defense Ministry, and he did not speculate on how many troops the plan might include.

Some high-ranking military officials have opposed the plan, saying that exposing the military to the drug gangs could contaminate them with the same corruption that has long plagued Rio's military police.

That corruption is the main reason the favela violence has proved so persistent over the years, and it's a problem the governor of Rio is in the best position to solve, said Domicio Proenca Jr., a professor and public security analyst in Rio.

Reports of crooked cops here are so common that a recent survey by Rio's state university found that 60 percent of residents have absolutely no trust in them. They are widely believed to be politically connected, which Proenca said explained why Cabral's predecessors abandoned their attempts at police reform after their first year in office. Lower-level politicians are funded in large part with bribes taken by police, he said.

"This kind of illegal, under-the-board collection of money is vital for political trajectories," said Proenca, who is with the Brazilian Institute for Fighting Crime. "In city and statewide politics, the police are a prime source of resources. Although a governor, say, is somewhat distant from that, his political adherents are not."

In December, federal officials detained more than 70 military police officers for involvement in drug trafficking and illegal gambling. Federal officials also announced they were investigating corruption allegations against a former head of civil police who is also a current state legislator. According to media reports cited in an Amnesty International report released this month, Rio's former governor squashed attempts to fire that police commander.

"The increasing evidence of high level links to organized crime within the police have confirmed the long held belief that without profound reform Rio de Janeiro's public security system has no vested interest in combating those behind the real causes of violence in the state," the report stated. "The police and the criminal justice system's focus on low level criminals shows a reluctance to address those who direct and oversee the drug and gun trafficking which is at the heart of Brazil's criminal violence today."

Cabral said he is trying to root out corruption in the military police and has fired more than 100 officers during his first four months in office. But Proenca estimated that Cabral might have to replace up to a quarter of the more than 39,000 military police in Rio to eliminate the problem.

A more effective initial solution, he suggested, might combine stricter vigilance of the force with significant pay raises, so members wouldn't be so susceptible to corruption. But that underscores one of the largest challenges facing Cabral and other officials: budget restraints.

Cabral said he hoped to raise salaries and hire more officers -- not immediately, but before his four-year term ends. Similarly, when he talks about zero-tolerance policies, the conversation is largely abstract -- such a plan would require an enormous amount of funding.

Tough-on-crime measures also would require more prisons, which have been chronically overpopulated for decades. Despite this, a recent poll by the National Congress found that 93 percent of the country supports tougher sentences for criminals.

Though Cabral said he has no tolerance for those who break current laws, he said he is philosophically open to the idea of changing some of the very drug laws that he promises to strictly enforce. Legalization of drugs, he said, could ultimately help solve Rio's problem, but he added that the United States, Europe and international organizations such as the United Nations must debate the issue before Brazil could adopt it.

He called much of the moral debate over legalization "ridiculous and outmoded."

"I think that 50 years from now society will be laughing at this discussion we are having today," Cabral said.