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New police tactics in Rio's drug war

BOUNCING a small boy on her knee and listening to residents' complaints, Captain Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo is the new face of policing in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro.

"The police are entering houses that have doors open with their guns pointed," complained Marcelo Andrade, a 38-year-old resident of the Santa Marta slum.

"They aren't invading houses, but they need to check when there's an open door," de Oliveira replied, dark hair tied back above her bullet-proof vest. "When you have something new there will be changes for the better and worse."

In their long, bloody battle to take back control of hundreds of slums from drug gangs, Rio's police are trying a new tactic - staying in place and talking to people.

After invading this community of about 10,000 people in last November and driving out the Red Command drug gang, the police surprised residents by staying, starting an experiment they plan to expand to other slums scarred by gang warfare and the usual police tactic of "invade, shoot and leave."

Santa Marta, a steep maze of shacks under the gaze of Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue, now has three police posts staffed by 120 mostly young officers trained in "community policing." New recruits, they are relatively unmarked by the brutality and corruption elsewhere in the force. Paid about US$220 more a month than their peers, they also have different orders - get to know residents, not just arrest them.

The new policy, combined with an influx of public works, is being backed by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in an attempt after six years in power to tackle the chronic problem of violent slums in Rio and other big Brazilian cities.

About 1,600 police have so far done the community training course and will be deployed to more of Rio's nearly 1,000 slums this year. The City of God slum, made famous by the 2002 film of the same name, has also been occupied since November and is due for community police.

"We have very serious logistical problems to resolve before we can guarantee that this will happen (in other areas)," Rio's State Security Secretary Jose Beltrame said.

Underlying the difficulties are residents' deep mistrust and fear of the police and gangs after years of brutal urban conflict. Rio's police shot dead 1,330 people in 2007 and regularly draw condemnation from human rights groups for their tactics, including arbitrary killings.

"If you ask the residents here what is better - the government or the parallel power - I bet you the huge majority will say the parallel power until they get used to the new reality," said Jose Mario dos Santos, head of the residents' association in Santa Marta. Andre Luiz, a 40-year-old resident of Santa Marta, said life had improved, but he recalled how the police occupied the slum for six months a few years ago and then left. Anyone being friendly with police could pay a high price later, he said.

"We are caught in the middle of a war," he said at his fried-potato stand. "If they leave, who is going to protect us? The traffickers will come back and demand a lot of things."

At the meeting with de Oliveira, the residents' mood was friendly but tinged with suspicion of the sudden presence of police patrolling the slum's alleyways.

"We need to adapt and they need to adapt. We're not used to these police who say 'good morning,' 'good afternoon,' and 'good night'," said Andrade.

De Oliveira, already known to many in Santa Marta as "Captain Pricilla," promised the operation was here to stay. "The trafficking has gone but there is a disorder from years of being forgotten. People don't have a notion of limits, that laws are good for some and bad for others," said de Oliveira, 30, who was kidnapped and beaten by criminals less than two years ago.


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