“It’s like Baghdad…”

Brazilian authorities have launched one of their biggest offensives against drug
trafficking, invading a network of shantytowns in Rio with tanks, helicopters
and around 1,350 soldiers.

It’s like
Baghdad, says media, with up to 24 dead in one day of shootouts



Blood on the streets as drug gang and police fight for control of Rio

It’s like
Baghdad, says media, with up to 24 dead in one day of shootouts

Tom Phillips in Rio de
Friday June 29, 2007

Brazilian authorities have launched one of their biggest offensives against drug
trafficking, invading a network of shantytowns in Rio with tanks, helicopters
and around 1,350 soldiers.

Just a few miles from the glamorous coastline of South America’s beach
capital, hundreds of heavily armed police swept into the sprawling Complexo do
Alemao – a network of 12 favelas that are home to more than 200,000 impoverished
Brazilians and are also considered the HQ of the Red Command drug faction.

Residents scrambled for cover as the air filled with the sound of machine gun
fire and exploding grenades. For nearly eight hours on Wednesday, traffickers
and police fought street-to-street battles. When the shooting subsided bloodied
corpses were left lying in the narrow streets and many homes were sprayed top to
bottom with bullets.

One Rio newspaper compared the images of carnage to the violence in Baghdad.
The paper concluded that these were "scenes from a civil war".

According to reports in the Brazilian press, between 19 and 24 people were
killed in one day, among them several high-profile members of the Red Command
drug faction. Locals claim the real death toll is much higher.

As battles continued yesterday security chiefs celebrated, parading part of
the gang’s arsenal – including automatic rifles, mortars and two machine guns
capable of firing up to 500 rounds a minute – in front of the cameras.

Rio’s security secretary, Jose Mariano Beltrame, said such conflicts were a
"bitter pill" that slum residents would have to swallow if they wished to rid
their communities of the drug gangs. "I believe that the traffickers have taken
a strong hit," he told reporters, denying that any innocent people had been
killed. "The arsenal of these traffickers is no longer what it was before."

But human rights activists accused Rio’s police of embarking on a policy of
extermination without any intention of arresting the traffickers. "The order [to
the police] is clear: to go in, to kill and to exterminate," said Mauricio
Campos from the Network of Communities Against Violence. "It is impossible to
deny this."

Nanko van Buuren, a Dutch doctor who runs social projects in the Complexo do
Alemao and was in a favela at the time of the operation, described a "horrific"
act of violence "against the people of the favela". "It’s absurd. I have worked
in favelas since 1989 and I have never seen anything like this," he said.

The operation began just before 10am on Wednesday. Led by bulletproof
vehicles, hundreds of members of the security forces carrying automatic rifles
and machine guns poured up the shantytowns’ hillside entrances.

A shootout followed as the police edged their way towards the hideout of the
local drug lord, known as Tota, who later fled.

Eight schools were forced to closed because of the violence, leaving nearly
6,000 students without lessons. Several residents were wounded by stray bullets,
including at least one child and a 20-year-old woman who was hit while inside a
primary school.

As the police advanced towards Tota’s refuge, several of his fighters,
reportedly fleeing the violence, were picked off by elite police snipers,
positioned in different parts of the favelas.

"It was just like shooting ducks," one police chief, quoted anonymously, told
a Rio newspaper.

The Complexo do Alemao, one of the most notorious slums in Rio, has been the
scene of almost daily clashes since a police crackdown on the gang began there
58 days ago. Locals are fearful of stray bullets and those who can afford to are
fleeing. The houses and apartment buildings surrounding the shantytowns are
plastered with "For Sale" signs and are being sold at hugely reduced prices.

The favelas have both symbolic and tactical significance for Rio’s police.
Many of the Red Command’s top traffickers are said to take shelter in their
hilltop fortresses while the area until recently also hosted the notorious
Fazendinha funk parties on Sunday nights, where drug kingpins from across Rio
paraded around with machine guns hoisted into the air. Investigative journalist
Tim Lopes was murdered by local traffickers in 2002.

Since the state governor, Sergio Cabral, came to power in January the war on
drugs has taken centre stage, leading to an increase in violence. According to
government figures, Rio’s police have killed at least 449 people in
confrontations since January, while more than 60 police officers have also lost
their lives.

Mr Cabral hopes that by attacking the traffickers while simultaneously
investing heavily in public services and urbanisation in the favelas, the
government will be able to reclaim control of some of Rio’s 600-odd shantytowns.

The Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, recently announced
infrastructure investments worth 1bn reais (£260m) in several favelas, among
them the Complexo do Alemao.

But human rights activists say brute force will only breed further hostility
towards the police.

"Yesterday virtually no students came to our projects because their parents
are scared of letting their kids out in the streets. All of our attempts to
resolve this violence are being undermined by these actions," said Mr van

Mr Campos said the invasion was a clear sign of the "radicalisation" of
security policy in Rio and that authorities were adopting the hardline security
policies of the Colombian and US governments. "Just like the US army in Iraq
[Rio’s police are involved in] total war, a dirty war without any respect at all
for human rights," he said.

Human rights activists outside the security ministry yesterday demanded an
end to the operation, as shootouts continued in the Complexo do Alemao.

Life and death of a trafficker

Rio’s drug traffickers rarely live past 35 and Alexander de Jesus Carlos, a
32-year-old drug lord known as "Choque" (pronounced Shock), appears to have been
no exception. According to the Brazilian press, Choque was killed in Wednesday’s
operation, bringing a brief but explosive life to an abrupt end.

One of the Red Command’s most senior traffickers, Choque was raised in the
drab urban sprawl of northern Rio and was a car mechanic by trade. Using a
mixture of extreme violence and brains he worked his way up through the ranks of
the Red Command before being crowned the boss of Manguinhos, one of Rio de
Janeiro’s most violent and impoverished shantytowns.

Choque was famed as one of the few traffickers who preferred to fight the
police rather than pay bribes. A notorious cop killer, he is also rumoured to
have routinely murdered any of his men who fled the battlefield. Those who lived
under his regime whispered that he sent victims to be dismembered by a local
butcher, who chopped up pigs by day and people by night.

Up close Choque seemed a friendly if stern character, with a firm gaze, a
tank-like physique and a knuckle-crunching handshake. The Guardian met him last
year at a hideout deep in one of the favelas of northern Rio. This reporter was
led through gloomy back alleys heavy with the stench of raw sewage. On virtually
every corner was a teenager with an AK-47 or M16 rifle.

Choque may have been a killer but he was also a perfect host. When we arrived
he was sat around a small table in the street with a handful of men, cups of
beer and revolvers on the table before them. He ushered us politely into a
nearby bar where he stood talking, flanked by a female security guard. Like
other traffickers, he had an obvious penchant for gold jewellery and fast
motorcycles. Around his neck was a huge gold medallion engraved "220 VOLTS". A
shiny silver pistol protruded from his tracksuit bottoms.

But in action Choque was terrifying. In April 2006 the Guardian was caught in
a six-hour gun battle between military police and traffickers, led by Choque.
Several locals were injured.

Before his apparent death, we had arranged to meet again. He said he had a
story to tell. As is often the case with Rio’s young traficantes, the chance
never came.

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