Rio: City of God -- and the Devil

Summer in Rio — not only are the temperatures rising, but the crime is heating up, as well. Barely a day goes by when the local papers don't have a front page story of the latest security operations in one of the city's many "favelas," or shanty towns, of civilians killed in the crossfire between police and drug traffickers, or of stray bullets injuring, and even causing death to ill-fated passers-by.

Such is the state of Rio de Janeiro, a city with an almost schizophrenic environment, all at once beautiful and wretched, immensely wealthy, and drowning in poverty. The city — known in Portuguese as A Cidade Maravilhosa — or The Marvelous City — bears the marks of its contradictory nature everywhere. The shanty towns dot the hillsides, which, from the distance and even at night, lends a curiously bucolic air to these lush, rainforest-covered hills. The reality, however, is far from the romantic illusion.

The favelas embody the outcast nature of the city. They are enclaves of poverty, symbolizing illegality and, in turn, exclusion, and by all means, not just restricted to Rio de Janeiro — take a look at any city here in Brazil, and within the city, you find the favelas.

At their most innocent, they are neighborhoods where the poorer communities gather to scrape a living, earning their chance in society. At their most sinister, they are sanctuaries of utter lawlessness, where the drug trafficker rules with a heavy, bloody hand.

In the past few days, incidents of gang violence have been heavily reported, as well as ongoing police raids in the favelas. On Friday, police mounted an anti-drug operation in Jacarezinho, a shanty town, which cascaded into a fierce gun battle. Seven people were killed, including a 3-year-old boy caught in the crossfire between police and traffickers.

Over the weekend, more violence precipitated throughout the city — one of the main highways from the suburbs to the city had to be closed because of gun battles from ongoing raids.

Also, along the main Rio-Sao Paulo highway, outbreaks of violence caused more death and injury — a 15-year-old boy lay in grave condition in a hospital after being caught up in a gun battle between traffickers and police, who were engaged in a shootout with four men.

On that same highway, two other men were also shot and killed during an armed altercation with authorities.

Camilla Ribeiro, project coordinator from the Global Justice NGO questions the tactics used by the police during such raids.

"In the summer, when the city receives more tourists, there is marked rise in police raids," Ribeiro told ABC News. "This rise in police operations is allegedly conducted to guarantee more security, but in reality, this has not had an effect on the violence or drug trafficking in the city.

"As Rio becomes more internationally visible, the government has to be seen to be doing something, but these operations are extremely violent, and they generate more violence, more homicide — it's not an efficient policy."

The local government feels the strain here in Rio. With high summer and the famous Carnival festivities just around the corner, officials are under great public pressure to provide a more secure environment.

The governor of Rio, Sergio Cabral, has requested that the national security force — a 7,700-strong unit of armed personnel — be deployed throughout the state, securing the borders, and preventing the movement of drug dealers and gang members.

Cabral also announced he would meet with other governors in the country's much populated south-east region, to reinforce the efforts throughout the area. Even President Luiz Igancio Lula da Silva — who created the national security force back in 2004, and has since deployed it three times — has taken Rio's soaring crime level seriously, calling it "terrorism," and vowing to use the "strong hand of the Brazilian state" to deal with it.

Public transport is another area of concern. The state highways agency — DETRA — is testing metal detectors, to be installed in the city's buses sometime after Carnival, to clamp down on public transport violence. In 2007, there were 7,513 assaults on the public transport network, according to Rio de Janeiro's public safety agency — 429 occurred in December, alone.

While the criminal threat in Rio can be considered as critical, it cannot function without the influence of corrupt officials in illicit activites.

A 2007 report by Amnesty International states that Brazilian government officials contributed to "an apparent increase in organized crime across the country," and that "law enforcement officials were reportedly involved in the drugs trade, selling guns, and smuggling arms, mobile phones and drugs to members of criminal gangs in detention."

"There's never a proper investigation that delves into the plot of drug trafficking, but it never touches those who profit most from it, such as the wealthy. It's exclusively aimed at the poorer neighborhoods," Ribeiro said.

"These raids criminalize poverty — it's always hitting the favelas, the poorer neighborhoods. It's as if there were two laws — one for those who live in the favelas, and one for those who live in the wealthy areas," Ribeiro said.

And it is the poor and the segregated who ultimately bear the brunt of the violence.

The people who live precariously in these zones — and who have no financial means to do otherwise — are persecuted by both the drug trafficker and the state, putting up with raid upon raid — if not by the state forces mounting the operation, then it is the drug trafficker, or one of the reported paramilitary-style militias, consisting of former police officers, who control up to 92 percent of the shantytowns in Rio, demanding payment from inhabitants in exchange for protection.

For now, the operations will continue, but to what effect? Ribeiro believes it is time for the government to take a greater step in reducing the levels of violence in Rio.

"There is a great need for serious investigations and border control, to take apart this huge international network of drug trafficking, who take advantage of the poverty to keep it going," Ribeiro said. "We have to find a peaceful way to combat this, as it's making our society a hell to live in."