Brazilians may send army to Rio de Janeiro to wage war against crime

October 30, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Crime-weary parishioners in Masses throughout this staunchly Catholic city will utter a special prayer today from their archbishop asking for divine help to "stop the climate of insecurity in the city" where daily more than 20 people are murdered, four kidnapped and hundreds robbed or otherwise assaulted.

While Archbishop Eugenio Sales has plenty of faith in heavenly intervention, he also thinks it might help if the federal government also brought out M-16s, machine guns and heavy artillery.

So he has joined hundreds of Brazil's politicians, business leaders and community activists who want the president to call in the army to lay siege to the 400 shantytown communities that have become synonymous with crime in this nation's premier city.

Their unprecedented request may get the go-ahead early this week.

Tomorrow, President Itamar Franco will "discuss" with Nilo Batista, governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the use of 20,000 troops to encircle troubled neighborhoods, many of which have become havensfor heavily armed drug traffickers and bandits who prey on the more affluent residents.

But government sources say the meeting is merely a formality.

Mr. Franco, newspapers report, has already made up his mind to declare a state of emergency in Rio if necessary to legally use soldiers by mid-November to go after an estimated 1,800 drug chiefs.

Mr. Batista, who opposes the idea, will be invited to jump aboard the crackdown or be bypassed.

The possible use of troops, which all sides agree is risky because soldiers are not trained for such action, is a measure of Brazil's desperation as it struggles to rescue its showcase city, whose image of famous beaches, mountains and Carnaval is sinking amid crime, poverty and corruption.

Almost one of every 1,300 Rio residents is killed annually, most in shootouts between traffickers, by murderous police or by robbers.

Bandits routinely kidnap executives for million-dollar ransoms, while robbers during afternoon rush hour brazenly barricade traffic tunnels leading out of the city and attack commuters.

Meanwhile, Rio is rife with corruption, as symbolized by large-scale electoral fraud in the state in last month's national elections. Voter fraud, which many lay at the feet of the president of the state assembly, was so extensive that results were thrown out and a new election for most state posts was scheduled for November.

Legend are stories of police incompetence, brutality and corruption. More than 30 officers await trial in separate incidents in which they -- for hire or revenge -- gunned down innocent people, some as young as 8.

"Rio lives in a state of undeclared civil war," President-elect Fernando Henrique Cardoso said last week.

The result is that Rio has been on a rapid slide for a decade. Since 1988, tourism dollars have dropped by $800 million annually.

Of Brazil's 35 largest banks, only one is still based here. Twenty years ago, Rio had 101 of the nation's 500 largest private businesses; it has 65 now.

A decade ago, Rio had half of Brazil's stock market activity; it now accounts for 12 percent.

The push to use the army is being led by figures outside the state, who say that as Rio goes, so goes Brazil.

"Rio de Janeiro is not only a patrimony of the state of Rio de Janeiro, it is a patrimony of Brazil," said Geddek Viria Lima, a congressman from the state of Bahia and supporter of military intervention.

Mr. Cardoso, who takes office in January, said he is even considering temporarily moving the presidency from the nation's capital of Brasilia to Rio to supervise military action in the state.

"Right now," he said. "Rio is a mess."

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