Crackland: Inside Violent Drug Gangs Ruling Rio’s Shanty Towns

ABC News Nightline
Nightline Fix

Just minutes from Rio de Janeiro’s iconic beaches, with names like Copacabana and Ipanema, there are massive shanty towns called "favelas," most of which are effectively ruled by violent drug gangs.

ABC News “Nightline” visited an open-air market complete with piles of color coded drugs. Smoking out in public, no police, nobody's batting an eye -- it's just business as usual. This is what's known as a "crackland."

Another crackland is the length of an entire city block. On the street, a 16-year-old crack addict.

Drug kingpins are the source of this misery. In a tiny room down a back alley, the man who runs the favela showed up, draped in gold and carrying a semiautomatic rifle.

“Given how serious the crack epidemic is here, do you worry at all about selling that to the community?” asked Dan Harris, “Nightline” co-anchor.

“Me, worried? Every man for himself, son,” replied the man who asked that his identity be concealed.

He then surprised Harris with a question of his own: “What if I decided I needed to kill you or kidnap you right now?”

The drug lord started chuckling.

As Rio prepares to host millions of sports fans for the World Cup next year and the Summer Olympics after that, police have launched a war to uproot the gangs. But this urban counter-insurgency campaign is controversial because Rio's police have a long history of brutality and corruption. For example, a video shows a police helicopter firing wildly in the middle of a neighborhood while in pursuit of a drug lord.

“These operations, today, are sporadic and only happen in extreme situations,” said Jose Beltrame, Rio’s security minister. “But this is a reality that is part of Rio. It exists.”

“Nightline” met one young woman who said her mother and grandmother were shot dead just one day earlier by police on a raid. Cell phone video shows the horrifying aftermath -- bodies on the ground in pools of blood, with officers standing by, seemingly unperturbed.

In Rio, both the police and the gangs claim to be on the side of the people. But it is clear, that for the most part, the people are simply marooned in the crossfire. Even with the clock ticking down to the World Cup and the Olympics, this war is not likely to end anytime soon.