Academic journal article Military Review

Operation Rio: Taking Back the Streets

Academic journal article Military Review

Operation Rio: Taking Back the Streets

Article excerpt

They are . . . the post-modern equivalent of jungles and mountains-citadels of the dispossessed and irreconcilable. A military unprepared for urban operations across a broad spectrum is unprepared for tomorrow.1

-Ralph Peters, "Our Soldiers, Their Cities"

MORE AND MORE, military analysis and planning must include dealing with lawlessness and organized crime as criminal activity becomes a bigger security threat.2 Such activities often involve weapons proliferation, including black market trading of nuclear material; drug trafficking and other crimes linked to terrorism and insurgency; profiteering from illegal immigration; and exploiting areas in megacities where government control and services have eroded.

Countering unlawful activities is not a new military mission, as American school children remember from President George Washington's response to the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.3 More recently and ominously, US soldiers confronted heavily armed urban criminals in the 1992 Los Angeles riot, where the 18th Street Gang, Bloods, Crips and other gangs were the principal antagonists.4 Events around the world demonstrate that crime is increasingly threatening democratic governments and their military establishments.5 Accordingly, the guidelines in our field manuals should address these new threats.

In this article, military support to civil authorities is seen from the perspective of Brazilian military leaders charged with countering urban criminal guerrillas. Although they have their own cultural and constitutional particularities, the Brazilian experiences offer US military leaders some insights about the role of armed forces at the end of the 20th century.

Restoring Govemment Control: Operation Rio

Operation Rio was conducted November 1994 through January 1995 by the Brazilian armed forces to restore public order in Rio de Janeiro so the government could re-establish control and services.6 One of Operation Rio's main objectives was to make the city safer. "We wanted to prevent groups of criminals from continuing to hold the residents of Rio de Janeiro hostage . . . [and] . . . this objective . . . [was] achieved," said army Colonel Ivan Cardoso.7 The operation was an experiment employing the armed forces in an urban environment to support civil authorities.

A modern city of 12 million people, Rio de Janeiro is a major cultural, political and trading center on the Brazilian coast. It was the capital city until 1961, when Brazil moved its capital to Brasilia, a newly constructed inland city. Today, Rio de Janeiro serves as the capital of the state of Rio de Janeiro and continues to be important to the country.

Rio is a beautiful city, but it is marked by extreme geographic and social contrasts. Its irregular topography, with mountains cascading precipitously to the ocean, has influenced its social organization. A wealthy social class resides along the beaches; the poor live nearby in favelas (ghettos or slums), built on the mountainsides.8 Because of the lack of government services, organized crime thrives in the favelas and is often aided by an unmotivated and ineffective state police force.

Of the 600 or so ghettos in Rio, 20 or 30 lacked government control when Operation Rio began.9 Robertinho de Lucas, leader of the Third Command gang, exemplifies a number of gang leaders who dominate districts in northern Rio. Robertinho is famous for distributing food, medicine and money to slum dwellers as a form of social assistance in the areas he controls.10 His Third Command contends with the widely known Red Command and other gangs for influence and control in the favelas.

These criminal gangs have established control over territories by winning over the slum populations. The situation has created criminal enclaves where modern and powerful small arms smuggled into Rio from other countries are used to repel the police. Often, the police are in cahoots with the criminal organizations. …

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