On our fifth day in Rio de Janeiro, November 23, an unprecedented joint offensive between the police, army, navy, and special forces stormed into the city’s slums. The operation was an effort to eradicate these areas of their ongoing infestations of drugs and crime. The news stations, which covered the battles almost non-stop, called the story “Rio at War,” but a better title would have been “Rio Polices Itself.” Although the presence of tanks and helicopters in the favelas made this appear like a foreign occupation, it was really Rio finally doing what was necessary not only so it could peacefully host the World Cup (2014) and Olympics (2016), but so it could simply govern itself completely.
Were Luciana and I near any of this violence? In fact, the neighborhood we initially stayed in (her sister’s) is adjacent to Vila Cruzeiro, one of the worst favelas in the city. Fortunately for us, we did not encounter any action. When the taxis and even the buses wouldn’t take us back to the neighborhood, and when one cab driver told us what was being planned by the police and military, we moved to Rio’s safer South Zone and stayed with a friend. The following day we traveled three hours north to Arraial do Cabo, a quiet resort town with fantastic beaches (and somewhere we’d planned to go anyway). Two days later we returned to the city, where the fighting had settled somewhat, though it was still ongoing.
The news reports on television were sensational and gripping: drug lords who weren’t arrested scurried into the hills like rats. Police seized countless caches of weapons, drugs, and automobiles. Those criminals who were motivated to retaliate set empty buses on fire; the tactic, once used to elicit fear, now seemed desperate and ineffective. The operation was a bold tactical change, and I give the city credit for its aggressiveness. In the past, Rio’s police practiced a kind of containment of its gangs, keeping them out of the city’s touristy South Zone. That may have kept those areas safe, but it didn’t stop the runaway train of crime, poverty, and violence in the rest of the city. By actually moving in and occupying the favelas (which are more like self-contained societies with their own supplies of water, electricity, cable, etc.), the police are abandoning appeasement in favor of real law enforcement.
Brazil’s economy is booming; millions of its citizens have moved from poor to middle class in the past decade. But there is a tired old notion that as an economy prospers, crime is somehow magically diminished. In fact, crime is diminished by effective, competent law enforcement, with the caveat that the police must be better respected than the criminals they pursue (meaning they must be professional). Luciana and I saw the “war” in Rio as a good thing, a city finally deciding not to do the same old thing and get the same old results. We don’t know what will happen next, of course; there could be a terrible backlash, and the police still must win the hearts and minds of the millions of favela dwellers. But as a matter of improvement, Rio de Janeiro made a decision to change, and acted on it.
One afterthought: If you live in a large city that has recently laid off part of its police force, it’s time to start worrying. That’s what happened to New York in the early 70s; it just happened in crime-addled Newark last week.