By Carlos A. Moreno
RIO DE JANEIRO – The labyrinthine steps used by inhabitants of the hillside slum of Babilonia to run down to the sands of Copacabana beach, which press photos showed just a year ago patrolled by rifle-toting drug dealers, are now occupied by children flying kites as police look on.
Police began occupying the neighborhood a month ago and, without firing a shot, cleaned out a once strategic bastion for drug trafficking a stone’s throw from the tourist section of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil’s most famous beaches.
“We occupied the slum peacefully a month ago and up to now there have been no incidents. We previously carried out sporadic operations here to try and halt the drug trade, the shootouts and the abuses. Now we try to settle quarrels between neighbors,” police Capt. Felipe Lopes Magalhaes told Efe.
Both Babilonia and the neighboring “favela,” or shantytown, of Chapeu Mangueira were controlled by drug traffickers linked to an organization calling itself the Third Command, which imposed its rules by force on the two communities and their close to 7,000 inhabitants.
Besides controlling the illegal drug trade, the gunmen monopolized other services like the supply of cooking-gas cylinders and imposed rules on the locals such as the times when they could come and go and the law of silence.
The two slums, with their shacks built on the steep ridge separating Copacabana beach from the seashore sands of Botafogo, were the scene of frequent shootouts between the drug traffickers controlling them and rivals trying to occupy them by force.
Since the police only patrolled the narrow streets in sporadic operations to end the clashes, locals took a dim view of the agents, accusing them of abuses.
But, contrary to all predictions, the police had no need to fire a single shot to occupy the two slums. It was enough for the Rio de Janeiro state government to announce several days beforehand that it planned to organize a Police Pacification Unit with 100 officers for the drug traffickers to take flight.
“The bosses and their gunmen fled,” Magalhaes said, leaving behind only a few boys who used to work for the traffickers as couriers and lookouts.
“Some of them are already looking for work in the shops and restaurants of Copacabana, but we want to install a technical school in the favela to provide them with an occupation and a choice in life,” he said.
Magalhaes said that the police occupation is insufficient to guarantee an end to drug trafficking and that the police are simply opening the way for the government to come in with services, education, health care and infrastructure.
The government has already installed free wireless broadband Internet and a place to give computer courses to the slum dwellers.
It is also promising to improve the water supply, build a technical school and improve the infrastructure.
The intention is to make Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira into model communities that have gone from being run by drug traffickers to being controlled by the state.
After installing Police Pacification Units in the slums
of Dona Marta, Batan and Cidade de Deus as well, the commander of the state police, Col. Mario Sergio Duarte, announced this week that he plans to extend the system to another 100.
The inhabitants of these favelas are more interested than anyone in these changes. “They welcomed us with open arms and now we have a close relationship with the inhabitants,” Magalhaes said.
“We never had problems with ‘the movement’ (drug traffickers) if we followed their rules. Now we don’t have to obey those abusive rules and our kids can play peacefully in the streets and grow up without those negative examples,” a Babilonia resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Efe.
“We’re the ones who have benefited the most – peace has been restored and now we don’t have to run from our homes to escape the shootings,” one of the locals, who lives in a Copacabana building between the favelas and the beach, said. EFE