Dawn on November 28, 2010. The Brazilian Special Forces, Military Police, BOPE (Police Special Operations Unit), Forestry Police, Civil Police, Federal Police and Army Parachute Brigade surrounded the Complexo do Alemão, one of Brazil’s largest shanty-town communities, with an estimated population of 150,000 and site of the country’s most vicious drug wars. This coordinated military effort succeeded in securing the premises within two hours, as police arrested 30 warranted criminals and seized more than 10 tons of narcotics and weapons. Residents raised the national and state flags to claim victory in the “War of Rio de Janeiro.” The Complexo do Alemão, which had been responsible for receiving and distributing 90% of the drugs in Rio de Janeiro, was now in the hands of government security forces.
These days, just a few miles north of the multimillion-dollar apartments of Leblon, not far from Ipanema beach, the former “microwaves” of the Complexo do Alemão are still visible. These are intersections where, only a year before, gangs “cooked” their victims in stacks of rubber tires. The average family in this once war-torn favela earns 257 reais (US$140) a month (more than three times less than the rest of Rio de Janeiro). Twenty-nine percent of its residents bring home less than the minimum wage, and the average resident of this community expects to live nine years less than his “Carioca” counterpart. Part of this stems from an infant mortality rate five times higher than that of the city’s wealthy Southern Zone. The other part comes from the favela’s long history of violence and poverty.
The Origins of the Complexo do Alemão
Soon after World War I, Leonard Kaczarkiewicz migrated to Brazil from Poland in search of a new beginning. He purchased land just north of central Rio de Janeiro to build a plantation. The local workers thought he was German, and the entire area soon became known as the Complexo do Alemão — the German’s compound.