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Military Occupies Rio's Shanty Towns to Fight Brazilian Drug War, U.S. Supports Military's Role


November 1994

On Oct. 31, the Brazilian government reached an agreement with the government of Rio de Janeiro to join forces to fight crime, violence, and drug trafficking in that state, according to Pedro Borillo of the U.S. Brazilian embassy.

President Itamar Franco and President-elect Fernando Henrique Cardoso responded to the pleas of Rio residents fed up with crime by initiating discussions with Rio politicians about the use of armed forces. Rio's governor, Nilo Batista, and other local politicians were said to be reluctant to use military action because it would mean surrendering a portion of their local autonomy to the Federal government. Many also recall the 21 years of military rule that ended in 1985 (Angus Foster, "Brazil May Call in Army to Fight Rio Drug Traffickers," London Financial Times, Oct. 28, 1994, p. 20).

On Nov. 19 troops moved into parts of Rio, bringing with them tanks, helicopters, and weapons (Jeb Blount, "Brazilian Troops Occupy Rio Slums to Wrest Control From Drug Traffickers," Washington Post, Nov. 21, 1994, p. A17). They closed off five shantytowns that were notorious for drug trafficking, requiring everyone entering or leaving the areas to be searched. One soldier was wounded Nov. 20 when a drug trafficker fired at troops in the Manguera shantytown.

The London Times said that military leaders approve of use of the military with some reservations. The leaders fear that innocent citizens might be caught in battles between drug traffickers and military personnel. They also see the situation as ripe for corruption as members of the poorly-paid military interact with cash-rich drug traffickers. Officials say that this fear is not without foundation, as the Military Police, the group that usually conducts sweeps of the shantytowns, has problems with corruption. Much of Rio's crime is committed by the Military Police, officials say, citing police involvement in bank thefts, drug trafficking, and extortion. According to the Washington Post, many Rio residents think that living under the rule of drug traffickers is better than living with the police. The traffickers often help pay for city services such as sewers and day-care centers. Franco promised that reform of corrupt police forces is one of the primary goals of the military occupation.

Soon after the first wave of military was sent into the shantytowns, reports of abuse by soldiers began to circulate. According to witnesses in parts of Rio, soldiers tortured and nearly killed some residents. "I saw about 15 youths lying on the floor of the church," said Rev. Olindo Antonio Pegoraro, a Roman Catholic priest. "Their hands behind their backs with someone asking them questions. There was blood, lots of blood, on the floor." Pegoraro also said that he saw soldiers holding the heads of young men in a tank of water. Others said they saw soldiers using electric shocks on residents ("Rio Drug Raid Included Torture, Witnesses Say," New York Times, Nov. 29, 1994, p. A10).

U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry was visiting Brazil when the military occupation began. He expressed his support for the policy, saying that "both the United States and Brazil have assigned a role to their military in supporting the civilian law enforcement agencies in fighting the drug trade." He called fighting illegal narcotics trafficking "challenge no. 1" (James Brooke, "Brazil's Army Joins Battle Against Drugs," New York Times, Nov. 20, 1994, p. 4).

The United States has committed $1.5 million for computer, transportation, and communication equipment to help Brazil combat drug trafficking. Brazil hired the Raytheon Company of Lexington, Ma. in July to construct an air trafic control and radar center.

Borillo of the Brazilian embassy said that the troops are only gathering intelligence and data about drug activity. They form a strong presence in some parts of the city but will not "come in shooting," he said.

Batista appointed General Roberto Senna to head the operation. Senna was in charge of security for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.