YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

CRIME : Rio Struggles to Pull Itself From Corruption Quagmire


RIO DE JANEIRO — Crime-weary parishioners at Masses throughout this staunchly Catholic city will utter a special prayer Sunday 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 kidnaped and hundreds robbed or otherwise assaulted.

While Archbishop Eugenio Sales has plenty of faith in divine intervention, he also believes that it might help if the federal government also brought out M-16s, machine guns and heavy artillery. So he has joined hundreds of 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 next week.

On Monday, President Itamar Franco will discuss with Rio de Janeiro Gov. Nilo Batista the use of 20,000 troops to encircle troubled neighborhoods, many of which have become havens for heavily armed drug traffickers and bandits who prey on the more affluent residents.

But government sources say the meeting is merely a formality. Franco, newspapers report, has already made up his mind to declare a state of emergency in Rio if necessary to use the military by mid-November to go after an estimated 1,800 drug chiefs employing up to 50,000 soldiers. Batista, who opposes the idea, will be invited to jump aboard this train or be run over by it.

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 in a quagmire of crime, poverty and corruption.

Almost one of every 1,300 Rio residents is killed annually, most in shoot-outs between traffickers, by murderous police or by robbers. Gunfire between warring drug lords this week interrupted classes for 5,000 students. Bandits routinely kidnap executives for million-dollar ransoms, while robbers brazenly barricade traffic tunnels leading out of the city and attack commuters during the afternoon rush hour.

Meanwhile, Rio is rife with corruption, as symbolized by massive 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.

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

When state officials burst into the home of an organized-crime chief four months ago, they discovered a ledger showing scores of police receiving payoffs, some as much as $900,000. Residents report watching officers outside their home splitting up suitcases filled with loot.

"Rio lives in a state of undeclared civil war," President-elect Fernando Henrique Cardoso told television crews while touring the Czech Republic this week. "The president of the state legislature is suspected of electoral fraud. All of this, plus the massacres and the rise of crime, are telling us that the time to act is now."

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%.

Ironically, 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.

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."

Los Angeles Times Articles