Rio de Janeiro struggles with Drug War

The recent events that took place in Rio de Janeiro made us rethink Brazil’s role in the international arena. Brazil is considered the most developed country in South America, is part of the G-20 and one of the BRICs. However, as it has been demonstrated in the past few weeks, there is a lot of work to be done before Brazil can even be compared to other developing countries and to be a safe host country for the World Coup and the Olympic Games.

Federal and state police, the army and the navy are all involved in the Brazilian government ongoing attempt to regain authority and power in the so-called “Complexo do Alemão”, a territory formed of 25 favelas, more than 30 thousand houses and with a population of 120 thousand people in North Rio de Janeiro. The main objective of this entire operation is to ensure peace and security in the region.

The operation mobilized 100 million Brazilian reais (approximately 40 million euros) and 22,700 men and women from the armed forces (double of the total amount of men and women sent to Haiti by the UN and 1/5 of the total sent by the USA to Afghanistan).

Drug trafficking in Brazil is a serious and material problem that for years governmental officials have been trying to avoid discussing or actually doing something to improve the situation.

Drug traffickers for as long as I can remember know no rule of law in Rio de Janeiro and live in a complete state of parallel power. They have always controlled the favelas and the local communities, thus bringing suffering, despair and violence to such population.

The residents from the favelas are the most vulnerable in Rio de Janeiro, not only because of their economical status, but also because they are subject to barbaric and brutal power. Children and elderly people are recruited to help the drug lords, serving as guards, messengers and mules due to their status of usually not raising any suspicion from the police.

Shocking images revealed that Rio de Janeiro is in fact living a precarious situation, that could be considered as a situation of war. Very little has been done by international organisations present in Rio de Janeiro or even by non-governmental organizations. This can be easily explained by the fear of trying to enter the favelas, which are often not accessible to civilians that do not reside therein.

Undoubtedly this entire operation was essential and necessary to bring into an end, or at least to start bringing into an end the horrible situation of the poorest population of Rio de Janeiro.

There is a massive support by the local communities to the operation, a novelty in the dynamics of Rio de Janeiro’s situation, as the population was always too afraid and terrified to testify or even communicate with the police.

Unfortunately, in Brazil and especially in Rio de Janeiro, there is a persistent culture of corruption and abuse of power by the police. Reports of abuses have already been made by the local communities from Complexo do Alemão, showing that the rule of law can also be weak in the other end of the stick. That, combined with the evident economic and social inequalities, hampers Brazil’s chances to grow and develop. 

It should be highlighted that regardless the nature of the crimes committed by the drug traffickers, and the complete chaotic and anarchic situation North Rio de Janeiro is at the moment, the rule of law must always prevail. Respect for the rule of law and for human rights should not be neglected in view of the circumstances of the case at hand.

The army will stay in Complexo do Alemão at least for another year. Brazilian President elected Dilma Roussef wants the army in North Rio de Janeiro until the Olympic Games. Whatever length of period of time the army stays in the region, we can only hope that both so-called good and evil sides of the story will respect the civilian population and bring some peace at last.

For further information about the situation in North Rio de Janeiro and IHL, see Sven Peterke, Urban Insurgency, ‘Drug War’ and International Humanitarian Law: The Case of Rio de Janeiro, in International Humanitarian Legal Studies 1 (2010) pp. 165-187.  <>

For a daily update on the situation in Rio de Janeiro, please check:

This entry was posted in By Carla Hoe, General. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rio de Janeiro struggles with Drug War

  1. Daniel says:

    Nice article!
    I wouldn’t take at face value that Brazil is the most developed country in Latin America; that would be Chile with a superior GDP per head (Uruguay and Mexico also have slight superior GDP per head metrics than BR, according to the World Bank ranking).

    The chief point is that there is the ‘Brazil of the macroeconomic index’ where the economy is growing, foreign investment is booming and interest rates are dropping giving room for loan-based consumption.

    And there is the ‘Brazil of the daily reality’ where we are afraid to stop in a red light with our cars at night, where the army needs to be activated so that the police may get into a neighbourhood in Rio, and, above all, where the population does not have access to education (in the latest OCDE ranking, Brazilian students ranked 53 among 65 countries).

    As for the organised crime (drug dealers), where there is a demand, there is a supplier.

    Keep blogging!

  2. Really interesting. I think it is particularly important to respect common article 3 dispositions, specially regarding the general protection to all individuals who are hors de combat (outside of combat). Although this situation is difficult to describe under IHL (seems to be an internal disturbance so far), HR should be respected in every way, most importantly if the armed forces are staying for such a long period.

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