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Squatter City, 6 January 2008

As The Washington Post reports, Rio’s police have occupied Santa Marta, a favela overlooking the upper-middle class Botafogo neighborhood. Among the police strategies: banning moto taxis (the unlicensed motorcycle taxis that many residents depend on to get up and down the community’s steep slope), depriving residents of pirated cable tv and internet service, and imposing curfews.

The reporter compares this strategy to the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. But this is not a war zone. Rio may be a violent city, but most of the shootings actually involve the police. Indeed, many favela residents (and some government officials) find the drug dealers more honorable than the cops. And, anyway, the police have done these kinds of occupations many times–invading favelas and terrorizing residents, all justified by the claim that they are trying to root out drug gangs–and they have always failed. Their actions, while temporarily preventing shootouts between rival gangs, actually kill the community in order to save it. As the article notes, so few people are out on the street that stores are closing in some favelas. And, though walking may be safer, there’s nowhere to walk to. Here’s a description of Santa Marta now:

The paths snaking among the houses were nearly deserted on a recent afternoon, unusual in such a densely packed community. As the search continues in the neighborhood and surrounding jungle for stashes of drugs or weapons, police regularly question residents about their activities. The neighbors don’t like being outside for fear of getting hassled, said Alan Basilio, 27, a student on his way home.

“At this time of day, you’d normally see many more people outside, sitting around and talking,” he said. “Daily life has changed a lot.”

“Of course, since the police arrived there are no more gunfights, no more shooting,” he said. “But the way it was before, we had freedom to go where we wanted, to do what we wanted, for as long as we wanted. I’m not sure how long it’s going to be like this, but it seems like it could be a very long time.”

And there’s another, more sinister angle to the story: Santa Marta is controlled by the Comando Vermelho–the Red Command–one of three drug gangs operating in Rio. But from what I have heard, the police have historically been cozy with another drug gang–Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends.) A cynic might say that the police are simply doing their friends in AdA a service by cracking down on the CV.

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