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New Lords of the Slums

Rio is safer today, but only after troops entered crime-infested slums, or favelas. But can military force really solve deep social problems?

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WHEN several thousand Brazilian soldiers ``invaded'' this coastal metropolis more than two months ago to halt a crime wave that had gotten out of control, many here hoped that this display of force could restore Rio to its namesake: the ``marvelous city.''

Famed for its dramatic mountain scenery and luxurious beaches, Rio had also become notorious its for extreme poverty and violent crime.

As of last fall, Rio's police were having little or no effect on drug-gang activities in the city's vast slums, and many claimed the police were in cahoots with the criminals. With the local government paralyzed, then-President Itamar Franco decided last October to send in the troops.

And if recent polls and official proclamations are any indication, the attempt at stopping crime through military force has worked. Rio is on its way back to its former beauty - but, some say, only if the military remains.

Eight-nine percent of Cariocas, as city natives are known, want military operations to continue throughout 1995, and 59 percent of those polled believe they are safer, according to polling firm Datafolha. City Hall-sponsored billboards declare ``Rio Has Changed,'' and radio spots from a well-orchestrated publicity campaign proudly announce ``Peace in the Marvelous City.''

But critics say ``Operation Rio'' - the largest military and civilian government joint operation ever carried out in Brazil against organized crime - has been little more than a short-term morale booster.

``It's a circus for the middle class,'' says Caio Fabio, a Protestant pastor who works in city slums. ``They haven't identified any drug networks or captured any major trafficker.''

The military took over responsibility for policing Rio's 6 million inhabitants from the state's 40,000-member police force on Oct. 31, 1994. By then, the Red Command and the Third Command - the two largest criminal groups - had taken over most of the city's 548 favelas, or slums, setting up parallel governments in their occupied territories.

Drug lords had imposed curfews on residents, forced schools to close because of nearby shootouts with police or rival gangs, and sealed off traffic tunnels to rob trapped motorists.


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