Lords of the skies - Issue 21 - Magazine | Monocle

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From the sky, Rio de Janeiro – with its jungle-fleeced mountains giving way to lagoons and the Atlantic shore – looks like an enticing South American city. Rodrigo Oliveira, chief of the special resources unit for Rio’s civil police, sees it differently. His heavily armoured Bell UH-1H helicopter circles over one of Rio’s favelas (or shanty towns), where government authorities have all but ceded control to drug lords.

In September last year, Rio’s civil police force received shipment of the ­updated UH-1H – the snub-nosed helicopter more familiarly known as the Huey II. Oliveira and his staff of 3,000, who have lost many officers in this battle, says the Huey has swelled esprit de corps. “The drug dealers don’t shoot at this helicopter,” Oliveira says. “Because they die.”

For the past two decades, Rio has been locked in a battle between the police, civil and military, and the gangs that run the drugs trade from the favelas. In 2007, Rio’s state government stepped up its offensive – and reportedly more than 1,300 people were killed by police. Amid the violence, two of Rio’s hundreds of favelas have since been freed from gang control. For several years, the civil police used two French-made, civilian-use helicopters. “Then the drug dealers got new weapons,” Oliveira says. “So it was necessary to get a new helicopter.”

Two pilots and 30 gunmen have been assigned to the Huey. They coordinate with ground crews from the special ­resources unit, as well as with other branches of the police that request the ­helicopter’s assistance during operations that often turn extremely violent. The drug gangs possess machine guns and rocket launchers and when they lift these weapons toward the Huey, the helicopter’s six active gunners, three stationed at one helicopter door, are authorised to unload. In one recent battle, the Huey’s shooters fired 25,000 rounds of ammunition.

The civil police’s Huey II is a refurbished model dating to the mid-1960s. Bell, the manufacturer, located in Alabama, specialises in purchasing helicopters on the open market then refitting them for resale to international military and police. Oliveira’s matte black helicopter is 40 per cent more powerful than when originally assembled, 40 per cent more efficient and it transports more than a dozen people. “They wanted a chopper that intimidates,” says Eric Wasson, Bell’s sales manager for South America.

The police’s main concern was having enough protection to allow pilots to drop lower into conflict zones. So Huey’s engine is armoured. The transmission is armoured. The floor panels are armoured. The gas tanks are armoured. It is difficult, in fact, to locate an area where a bullet could enter. The Huey’s armour and its increased power and shooting capacity have emboldened the civil police’s pilots.

Our pilot, Franco, dips over a favela to demonstrate an attack. He tilts the Huey rakishly to the right on its central axis, then executes a continuous swirl 30 feet above the orange roofs of the favela. The gunmen on board lift their weapons into action, aiming toward the shacks beneath them. Faces are visible beneath the helicopter, residents of the favela pausing from their chores to look up. Two little girls lift their hands and wave. Franco rights the ship and flies onward. One of the gunners, Manuel Lage, speaks into the microphone of his helmet. “You should hear the sound this helicopter makes from the ground,” he says. “With this noise – and then we come in shooting – the drug dealers run.” Then he laughs. “Thank God, they run.”

The shooters themselves are an elite bunch, graduates of a rigorous course that certifies only a handful of police officers a year. “The selection process is pretty natural,” Oliveira says. “If a target shoots him, he’s already not good enough. We have only crackpots here. They’re laughing their heads off when they’re being shot at. You have to have cold blood.”

Franco lands the Huey at the helipad at the edge of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, just off Leblon, down the beach from Ipanema. Oliveira and his crew pile into an office where walls are lined with helicopter photos. One of the gunmen slides a disc into a DVD player, which begins to play on a tv screen in the corner of the room – a video of a recent operation in a favela, courtesy of a camera mounted on one of the helicopter’s skids. There is the familiar rust-roof sprawl of the favela. Someone in the room says, “There he is.”

A man emerges from one of the shanties. As he runs, he looks over his shoulder, lifts his long, black rifle toward the camera and fires. Instantly, the ground around this man bursts into a dust cloud, as dozens of bullets pelt the street. The man staggers down the alleyway, and the camera loses him beneath a metal awning.

In the Huey II’s 10 favela missions since active deployment in November, 32 drug dealers have been arrested or otherwise eliminated. Oliveira and his superiors are pleased – so pleased that they are considering placing another order with Bell.

On the TV screen, the helicopter circles as the pilot attempts to locate the man on the street below him. And then the camera recovers sight of the man. He is not hard to find. He lies awkwardly, face down in the dirt, blood pooling around his body. Oliveira looks up from the screen and addresses the room. “They have very short careers,” he says.

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