New governor faces off against drug gangs in Rio slums

Published May 25, 2007

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Days before Gov. Sergio Cabral took the oath of office this year, drug gangs in this city set fire to public buses and opened fire on police stations in what Brazil's president called the "most violent terrorist act I have ever seen in this country."

Law enforcement officials said the gangs were trying to send the new governor a message: His pledges to seriously tackle the drug gangs would fail, just as the early promises of all of his predecessors had.

Cabral, 44, praises former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "zero tolerance" policies. He has asked the nation's military to back up local police on the streets of Rio. He has promised to build more prisons, root out corruption in the police forces and improve services in the city's shantytowns.

"There is not a short-term solution to the problems, " he said.

Cabral's critics fear that his vision is plagued by the same blind spots that have prevented governments from solving the conflict since the 1980s.

So far this year, police have intensified raids in the city's 600-plus favelas, or slums, and the gangs have fought back. Officials reported that more than 1, 000 people were killed in January and February - in line with the murder rate of recent years.

The conflict, which began more than a generation ago, has outlasted successive administrations. In 1994, for example, Rio Gov. Nilo Batista also asked for military intervention in the favelas. A few years later, Gov. Anthony Garotinho got the nickname "The Sheriff" for his vows to confront the drug gangs.

Cabral, an ally of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has called on the federal government to send the nation's army and navy to Rio to support local civil and military police units. The military would not directly confront the gangs, he said, but would perform other security duties that would free up local police officers to carry out raids.

Some military officials oppose the plan, saying that exposing the military to the drug gangs could contaminate them with the same corruption that plagues Rio's military police.