RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazilian paratroopers will spend the holidays in two of Rio’s biggest slums, as the government launches the second phase of an unprecedented operation to maintain hard-won control over one of the city’s most violent regions.

Soldiers began patrolling the streets inside the slums of Complexo do Alemao and Vila Cruzeiro today, nearly a month after they helped police take back the area from drug gangs that were headquartered there.

“This operation has a historic importance for all of us,” said Major Fabiano Lima de Carvalho, of the army’s paratrooper brigade. “This region spent many years without the presence of the police.”

For the last month, soldiers have been stationed at checkpoints only on the edges of Complexo do Alemao while police conducted operations inside the slums. Now the army is taking command of the entire operation and 1,800 paratroopers will work with approximately 200 local police to patrol the streets throughout both slum communities, known here as favelas.

Officials say the move is purely practical — the police are shorthanded and so Rio de Janeiro’s governor has asked the army to take over while the state trains more police units that specialize in patrolling favelas. The state has pledged to avoid a repeat of past slum invasions, when armed forces stormed favelas in response to crime waves but then left soon after, allowing an easy return for drug gangs.

The patrols are beginning as many residents’ early elation at a relatively bloodless takeover by police and the military has faded. Complaints of rampant theft by police who were searching houses for criminals or contraband now seem to dominate any discussion of the occupation.

“At the beginning, it was terrible because they were going into people’s houses, searching,” said Alzira Pernambuco, a 54-year-old resident. “You had to take all your money, all your jewelry with you onto the street. If you left it, you lost it.”

Residents in general are reluctant to criticize either drug dealers or police on the record out of fear of retribution from both sides. But many claim they see little difference between the two.

“It’s the same thing. The police protect us. The drug dealers used to protect us,” said Jose Altivo do Reis, 72, a retired metalworker who lives near the top of the favela’s steep hills. “It’s good now. But it used to be OK. I just lived my life. I never get involved in anyone’s business.”

Soldiers at an entrance to Complexo de Alemao.
(Solana Pyne/GlobalPost)

Life has more or less returned to normal, residents say. Authorities have cleared most of the burned cars that drug traffickers used to blockade the neighborhood; Electricity is back on. Now, residents say they want the government to follow through on providing badly needed services.

“We want healthcare inside the community. What they’re giving us now is just makeup,” said Eleazar Agusto Rodrigues, 64, a salesman who’s lived in the favela for 43 years. “The only difference now is that you no longer see criminals, you just see police in their place. Otherwise nothing’s changed.”

And life inside these slums is difficult. Complexo do Alemao ranks lower than the African country of Gabon on the United Nations Human Development Index, a world survey of living standards that measures factors like access to education and health care. By comparison, the Development Index scores of upscale Rio neighborhoods like Gavea and Leblon are higher than Norway, the world’s top-ranked country.

The city has pledged to change that by bringing city services in soon after the soldiers. Residents remain poised between wariness and hope.

Josemar Brito de Souza Rocha, 21, held his one-year-old son on his lap at a picnic table near an area where locals say drug dealers once dumped bodies of murder victims.

He complained that the police have been excessively violent toward residents, but also said he was grateful that drug dealers had left the slum without the gun battles that left many innocent people dead in the past.

While it’s impossible to know what’s next for this vast, once-violent city of shacks, he hopes the future will mean more work and education.

“God is giving everyone an opportunity,” he said.

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