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Violence clouds Carnival

Extra security is on hand in Rio after a spate of drug-related killings and a pair of especially unsettling homicides.

February 17, 2007|Andrew Downie | Special to The Times

RIO DE JANEIRO — This Brazilian city entered its famously joyous Carnival weekend Friday as a surge of violence has raised questions about the effectiveness of police officers and troops drafted to curb the mayhem.

The slayings in recent days of a samba leader and a 6-year-old boy, coming amid a homicidal spree of drug violence in the city's poor hillside neighborhoods, have shaken the confidence of the self-proclaimed Marvelous City.

"Brazil is in the emergency room of a social tragedy in which bandits decide who lives and who dies," declared the weekly magazine Veja.

Authorities unveiled a security plan that included reinforcements for law enforcement and vowed that the city would be safe to welcome tens of thousands of tourists for the annual bacchanalian revelry that is Carnival. Hundreds of additional police officers were to be posted to Rio's acclaimed Sambodrome, the route of world-televised Carnival parades Sunday and Monday featuring elaborate costumes and extravagant floats.

"I think the Carnival will be as calm as in other years," police chief Col. Samuel Dias told reporters.

Gov. Sergio Cabral sought federal help in halting the bloodshed after 19 people were killed in one night of violence the week after Christmas.

Authorities in Brasilia, the capital, agreed to send troops to help Cabral when the new governor took office Jan. 1, but the presence of an advance force has done little to halt the trouble. At least six people were killed in a gun battle between troops and drug traffickers Tuesday in the Kelson favela, one of the 600-odd shantytowns that dot Rio.

Two frightening deaths

Most shocking for a city proud of its reputation for merriment were the killings of Guaracy Paes Falcao, a samba impresario, and Joao Helio Vieites, a child caught in Rio's tumult.

Falcao was vice president at Salgueiro, one of the 13 big samba schools whose flamboyant parade along the Sambodrome each spring is a highlight of the pre-Lenten festival.

Falcao was gunned down with his wife as they left rehearsals at the school early Wednesday. He was the second top Salgueiro official to meet a bloody end in recent years. The school's financier was gunned down in a gangland-type slaying in 2004.

The killing of Falcao came on the heels of the even more shocking death of the 6-year-old boy. He was with his mother and brother last week when their vehicle was carjacked. The youngster was unable to undo his seat belt and escape before the bandits drove off, authorities said.

The boy, entangled in the belt, slid out an open car door and was dragged through the streets for about four miles as the thieves fled.

Police later detained suspects, but the arrests did little to stem an outrage that was unusual even for a city on permanent alert over daily killings armed robberies, kidnappings and carjackings.

Hundreds of people attended a memorial service for the boy, soccer fans raised signs at weekend matches, participants in Carnival street parties wore black armbands and even schoolchildren made their feelings plain, donning protest T-shirts and demonstrating in public squares.

Congress reacted quickly, passing legislation designed to ensure that those convicted of the most serious crimes would remain in jail for at least two-fifths of their sentence. Previously, prisoners could move to more open prisons after serving one-third of their time.

Another bill is aimed at increasing penalties for adults who commit crimes using minors, and a wide debate has been reignited over reducing the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16.

City of violence

Those moves were welcomed by many but did little to ease the sense that Rio de Janeiro is sliding into a violent abyss.

Behind its glamorous image as a sun-soaked paradise, Rio is one of the most violent places in the world.

Some 6,620 people were killed in the city and surrounding state in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Those official figures put the homicide rate at 42.1 for every 100,000 residents, twice the Brazilian average and between three and four times the rate in Los Angeles.

Many residents regard the most violent favelas, the shantytowns run by organized crime gangs who control the marijuana and cocaine trade, as akin to war zones.

The tense standoff in many favelas has deteriorated in recent months as traffickers fight to keep out paramilitary militias who seek to cleanse the shantytowns and impose their own protection rackets.

The violence has become so elevated that angry citizens created a website to tally the death toll.

"The war is here and we can't let these deaths become just forgotten numbers," said Vinicius Costa, one of the site's originators.

"People are killing each other, but no one realizes how high the numbers are because it's a few dead here and a few dead there.

"We wanted to wake people up."

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

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