Where Angels, and Police, Fear to Tread

James Wimberly on the fighting between police and gangs in Brazil:

The clash was sparked whern the Policia Militar moved into the Complexo do Alemão, one of the last favelas to be ¨pacified¨ - note the COIN language.

Previously, the gangs have been able to relocate, but no more, so they are cornered. The fight is a last ditch stand. The gangs are using diversionary tactics outside the favelas, and there are burning buses all over the place. Reinforcements have been brought in - even a battalion of Marines with light armour, which helps in clearing truck roadblocks. (No, I have not seen this first-hand and am not going anywhere near the fighting if I can help it. I´m a blogger, not a reporter. Hats off to real reporters, especially those who put themselves in harm´s way, and most especially those who don´t return.)

London Daily Mail

Of course the outcome isn´t in doubt, and the resistance is pointless and surprising. It shows the extent to which the favelas have become enclaves of criminal self-government outside the reach of the law. It´s perfectly safe to take a guided favela tour (you´d be mad to go in by yourself): the guides have undertandings with the warlords that the gringo tourists are not to be molested, which would bring in the police and disturb the smooth running of the drugs business.

I´m not at all clear how this strange situation developed. The original purpose of police forces was after all to control the violence of the urban poor. Hell´s Kitchen in 19th-century New York and Whitechapel in turn-of-the 20th-century London were violent places, but the police were always present, trying with variable success to keep a lid on crime. Organized crime leaders could often buy impunity; systematically so during Prohibition. But this sort of corrupt coexistence is still a long way from true no-go areas as in Rio. Offhand I can´t think of another example in the world, though Nairobi´s million-strong Kibera slum has no police station.

Explanations welcomed. It must have something to do with the history of inequality in Brazil, always a matter of money and region rather than explicitly of race (blacker usually means poorer and northern).

I'm skeptical that the issue is inequality, if only because there have been a lot of very unequal countries in history but not many where the police effectively ceded large chunks of territory to the rule of violent gangs--I'm struggling to think of any after Sherwood Forest, but that's undoubtedly a product of my limited historical knowledge.

Still, something clearly went pathologically wrong here.  It would be nice to know what.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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