Sorry to break into the American holiday weekend and all that, but in case you´ve not been noticing, the news in Rio is of a near-war with automatic weapons between favela drug gangs and paramilitary police. Death toll variously estimated between 14 and 30.
The clash was sparked whern the Policia Militar moved into the Complexo do Alemão, one of the last favelas to be ¨pacified¨ – note the COIN language.
Previously, the gangs have been able to relocate, but no more, so they are cornered. The fight is a last ditch stand. The gangs are using diversionary tactics outside the favelas, and there are burning buses all over the place. Reinforcements have been brought in – even a battalion of Marines with light armour, which helps in clearing truck roadblocks. (No, I have not seen this first-hand and am not going anywhere near the fighting if I can help it. I´m a blogger, not a reporter. Hats off to real reporters, especially those who put themselves in harm´s way, and most especially those who don´t return.)
Of course the outcome isn´t in doubt, and the resistance is pointless and surprising. It shows the extent to which the favelas have become enclaves of criminal self-government outside the reach of the law. It´s perfectly safe to take a guided favela tour (you´d be mad to go in by yourself): the guides have undertandings with the warlords that the gringo tourists are not to be molested, which would bring in the police and disturb the smooth running of the drugs business.
I´m not at all clear how this strange situation developed. The original purpose of police forces was after all to control the violence of the urban poor. Hell´s Kitchen in 19th-century New York and Whitechapel in turn-of-the 20th-century London were violent places, but the police were always present, trying with variable success to keep a lid on crime. Organized crime leaders could often buy impunity; systematically so during Prohibition. But this sort of corrupt coexistence is still a long way from true no-go areas as in Rio. Offhand I can´t think of another example in the world, though Nairobi´s million-strong Kibera slum has no police station.
Explanations welcomed. It must have something to do with the history of inequality in Brazil, always a matter of money and region rather than explicitly of race (blacker usually means poorer and northern). When migrants started moving from the poverty-stricken, overpopulated north-east of Brazil to the booming cities of the south, the shanty towns they set up were I suspect treated as outside the pyschological city limits – non-persons in non-places. This is the background for the pathological death squads murdering street children. The forces of integration – work, electricity and culture (samba schools and TV) – have recently been counterbalanced by the boom in the drugs trade, notoriously run from the favelas.
The left, noting the shaky commitment of the Brazilian police to the rule of law and their association with right-wing politics and the death squads, apparently used to object to police pacification of favelas. So many well-intentioned people supported the continuance of no-go areas whose inhabitants, all Brazilian citizens, were denied the core Hobbesian state guarantees of their fundamental rights to security of life and property.
This was wrong. Restoring a police presence, even a questionable one, is a crucial step to ending a class war. The heavy casualties today are the price of decades of looking the other way.
Update 28 November midday
TV images from a helicopter show that the police have reached the highest point in the Alemão, the roof of the cable car station. They are brandishing the flags of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro state, à la Iwo Jima (out in the open, so resistance must have stopped). I am not making any of this up.