Rio slum dwellers caught in battle to pacify city

Jose Pereira's hand shook as he sat on a sidewalk and took a deep drag on a cigarette, trying to calm down after taking a stray bullet in the leg while police and drug dealers fought over the shantytown where he lives.

"They fight, but we're the ones who suffer, the residents," the 33-year-old bricklayer said just after police captured the slum amid heavy fire.

"How am I going to work now?" he said, motioning to his bandaged leg as he waited outside a hospital just outside the slum where he lives, his eyes tearing up in frustration. "I have three children. How are they going to eat?"

To the police who raided Vila Cruzeiro, it was a fortress for heavily armed drug dealers. To Pereira and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, it was home. Kids went to school in the morning, and men like Pereira woke up at dawn to earn a living in the city below.

Suddenly the slum and others like it have become battlefields in Brazil's struggle to make Rio de Janeiro safe for the 2014 World Cup of soccer and the 2016 Olympics. Security for visitors was one of the things Brazil promised in its successful bid to host the games.

The favela, as the slums are known, rises above the hospital where Pereira sought treatment: a maze of rickety shacks, little more than tin-topped boxes of exposed brick, accessible only through steep, winding paths. Bursts of automatic weapon fire still rang out as he spoke.

Living in Vila Cruzeiro was never easy. The gangs saw the sprawling hillside as their territory, a haven from which to operate their business, protected from the law by difficult access, heavy firepower and the human shield provided by families like Pereira's.

Occasional gunfights broke out among traffickers, and residents shut themselves in at night, afraid of crime and the jumpy young men who ruled the place from the backs of their motorcycles. But life went on, Pereira said.

That fragile truce is over. Rio de Janeiro's governor vowed to break the back of drug gangs and bring the rule of law to places like Vila Cruzeiro.

Police forces during the past two years have stormed more than a dozen slums and set up permanent posts there in an effort to make the city more secure.

Just this week, police took Vila Cruzeiro and the Alemao complex of shantytowns in intense gunfights, with help from soldiers in camouflage, air force helicopters and caterpillar-tracked armored vehicles that rolled over burning tires and blockades at the mouth of the snaking alleyways.

Police planted Brazilian and Rio state flags at the peak of Alemao on Sunday — symbols of state authority in a community that was lawless for decades.

"It's over, the myth of their invincibility," said Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame, the architect of the pacification plan.

Approximately 50 people died during a week of police raids and drug gang attacks, and police say most are criminals. But the innocent suffered as well. Health officials say the youngest of those wounded was 2 years old, and the oldest 81.

On Monday, police hunted for as many as 200 gang members who may still be holed up in Alemao and set their sights on more conquests.

"This is a process and we won't rest on the laurels of our victory," said Rio Governor Sergio Cabral.

There are plenty of targets: Rio has more than 1,000 favelas, many of them under the sway of criminal gangs.

Once the police set up permanent posts, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes is promising "an invasion of services," an investment of $230 million to refurbish schools, set up a local market, and build child care centers like those set up in favelas that were pacified earlier.

The slums need the help. Three days after the police took over Vila Cruzeiro, pigs were rooting through piles of garbage as sewage poured from broken pipes.

Some work was already under way Monday. Utility company workers, long afraid of entering the slum, were trying to work through bundles of gnarled wiring that delivered pirated electricity to residents, trying to restore power that was cut during the raids.

In other occupied favelas, the permanent police posts have led to a drop in crime. In Cidade de Deus, a notorious slum that inspired the film "City of God," there were 35 homicides between November 2007 and November 2008 and just six in the same period a year later.

Three women gathered in a garbage-strewn plaza with a broken swing set laughed sarcastically Sunday at the idea anything would ever change in Vila Cruzeiro. They smoked, kept their kids by their side, and refused to give their names for fear of retaliation.

"No, it's not worth it," one of the mothers said of upheaval caused by police. "Before, we lived our lives, they (the drug traffickers) lived theirs."

Now, they've had no electricity for days, what food they had in the refrigerator is spoiled and police burst into their homes, throwing their belongings around during searches for drugs and weapons.

"Look at these guys, milling around. You think they're just watching the day go by?" one of them said. "They're with the movement" — slang for the drug gangs — "They're just waiting until they can go back to business."

The incursion scared their children into staying awake at night, shut down schools for most of the week and prevented them from getting to work by interrupting bus service in the area, the women said.

Most residents, however, seemed to welcome the police with a warmth the city's often-criticized officers rarely see from the jaded population. Armored cars were cheered. Some people offered soldiers and police water and food.

"It's a change; you see the population believing in the police," said officer Ronald Martins, stationed near a market at the bottom of Vila Cruzeiro.

"I get goose bumps," he said. "In 20 years with the police I've never felt like this. It's the feeling of a job accomplished — the job I signed up to do 20 years ago."

The pacification program is becoming easier as residents come to feel confident the police are there to stay, Beltrame said, and young men who had been recruited by traffickers are starting to look for jobs and change their lives.

A woman who brought her 7-year-old grandson to see the armored vehicles pointed to the church of Our Lady of Penha, perched on a jutting granite boulder high above Vila Cruzeiro, and recalled a time when the faithful would gather to honor the Virgin every October, holding big picnics and setting off fireworks.

Now Josiane, who didn't want to give her last name, doesn't even go to Mass there anymore, and said it pains her to see how her grandson, raised with the sound of gunfire, startles at the sound of firecrackers.

"Can you imagine raising a child that jumps at every loud noise?" she asked. "I hope this will be the rebirth of this community. Things had to change. We have to hope."