Rio de Janeiro
The black police helicopter floats above Rio. Ahead of us looms the huge mountaintop statue of Christ, arms outstretched to the city; below us lies the long, wide expanse of Ipanema Beach. Inland from the posh neighborhoods on the water rise abrupt mountains of solid rock topped by lush jungle. Stacked up haphazardly along these steep slopes are the favelas: the densely packed unplanned neighborhoods of the poor and working classes.
If the contrast of white beaches and dark mountains defines Rio’s postcard-perfect geography, it is the surreal inequality of luxury condos overlooked by impoverished slums that defines Rio’s social landscape. Originally built by squatters from the rural northeast, and named for a hardy weed of that region, the poverty- and crime-plagued favelas are the open sore on Rio’s welcoming smile.
The police are giving me an airborne tour of the city and explaining how the state, long absent from the favelas, is planning to reimpose order through an ambitious "pacification" campaign. Despite a multifaceted security crisis, Rio will host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. "The state is going back to occupy territories from which it was absent, both in terms of public security and in terms of social investment," says State Governor Sérgio Cabral.
As we approach Favela Vidigal, the pilot steers the chopper out over the water in a wide defensive arch. Vidigal is "hostile," under the control of the Comando Vermelho (CV), one of Rio’s gangs, and known to shoot at police helicopters. The cocky young pilot, wearing a blue jumpsuit and dark shades, made sure to point out three freshly patched bullet holes near its tail rotor just before we took off. (Damage the tail rotor, and the chopper spins out of control.)
In October gunmen from the drug gangs shot down a police helicopter. It was part of a daylong firefight between two rival gang factions and the police, in which three officers were killed and four were badly injured. Twelve civilians—gangsters and bystanders—were also killed. In the surrounding area young men firebombed ten buses. It all happened just a mile from the stadium that will host the World Cup final and the Olympic ceremonies.
The gangs of Rio run the favelas and much of the city’s retail drug trade. Inside the communities they carry machine guns openly, as if they were the police; tax local economic activity; and operate informal courts that mete out justice. In one case, they shot a 14-year-old girl through the hands and feet because she stole a cellphone. More often they simply execute people accused of snitching, stealing or causing trouble. The gangs have killed journalists, and their turf battles account for much of the murder rate in Rio. Roughly the size of New York, Rio has a murder rate six times higher. In 2009 about 5,000 people were killed here.