Alfonso Daniels: Rio authorities scent victory in bold new strategy of pacification

'There will be war against drug gangs, and the battleground will be Alemao," Rio de Janeiro´s state security chief, Jose Mariano Beltrame, told me a few months ago, adding that it would be the make-or-break moment for the strategy launched two years ago to pacify the city's violent favelas where one-fifth of its six million inhabitants live.

He expected the occupation to start next year as soon as thousands of new "pacifier" police officers were trained. But events in the last week when armed men set up roadblocks in key areas, torching cars and buses and provoking confrontations with the police leaving dozens dead, have changed everything.

The authorities claim that gangs were reacting against the pacification drive which has pushed the criminals from 14 other slums, freeing some 150,000 people from a reign of terror.

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Unlike in the past, when the hated regular police would shoot their way into the slums, summarily executing drug dealers and innocent bystanders and then retreating to leave criminals in charge once again, the new pacifier police units have set up permanent bases there, combining policing with community work.

But Complexo do Alemao, a sprawling group of a dozen slums in the north of Rio, is a different story. Alemao has multiple entry points and is where gang leaders expelled from pacified favelas are believed to have fled. When I visited it, teenagers with guns were everywhere, setting up checkpoints and selling drugs in the open.

Despite being caught off guard, the police have resorted to the same methods they have successfully applied in the other pacified slums: warn drug gangs in advance about their intervention, mass enough firepower so that gangsters believe they do not stand a chance of winning and then hope that gangsters will either give up their guns or, in the case of the leaders, flee the area. And this seems to have worked, at least for now.

The real test will come later when police try to establish a stable and credible presence in Alemao, not to mention the hundreds of other favelas that still need to be occupied, including the huge Rocinha on the other side of the city. For Rio to stand a chance of successfully hosting the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics two years later, the war in Alemao needs to be won.