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The Rio war

If it had happened three weeks earlier, we might be looking at a 2016 Olympics in Madrid, Chicago or Tokyo, the three candidate cities where a police helicopter was not shot down by drug gangs this weekend.

To be fair, it is extremely unlikely that a battle like the one fought between two drug gangs that control neighboring favelas — by Monday evening leaving three officers and 11 suspected criminals dead — will happen during the Olympics in 2016. That is because in the likely event that drug-infested favelas do not disappear in the next seven years, the city and state will spend great energy to strike deals so that the gangs will behave themselves while the world is in town. But that’s energy that will not be spent preparing for the more basic security needs of something so complex as an Olympic Games.

The weekend’s violence is the kind that breaks out from time to time, but it took on an added significance so close to the Olympic decision. Some of the details, as reported by the Brazilian press, are frightening. That helicopter might have been downed Saturday morning by anti-aircraft machine guns, not your typical inner-city munitions. Ten city buses were incinerated. The police were completely aware (through intercepted phone calls) that one gang, the “Red Command,” would be attacking the other gang, “Friend of Friends,” but were powerless to stop it. The reason, according to the state’s security secretary as quoted in Folha de Sao Paulo: the favela has “hundreds of entrances.” He also said that though the police were on hand soon after the invasion began at 1 a.m., they did not take action until 7 a.m. because police do not enter favelas at night, as a matter of policy, “without proper preparation.”

And more: the attacks were believed to have been ordered by prisoners of a high-security facility in the state of Parana, hundreds of miles away. O Globo reported that police may now know the favelas where the instigators of the attacks are hiding — in several cases, favelas with high drug activity that the police have not entered in months.

O Globo, the city’s paper of record, is calling it A Guerra do Rio, or the Rio War. The helicopter incident, was followed by ten deaths of alleged criminals on Saturday and two more on Sunday. There was also a macabre scenario in which the police entered the favelas to track down two of the bulletpocked bodies of drug dealers that had been left behind. By today, 4,000 police officers had been mobilized for follow-up operations related to the violence.

To be on Copacabana Beach when the Olympic decision was made was to be reminded that this city knows how to organize a heck of a party. The violence over the weekend reminded everyone that this city does not control what goes on within its own borders. So, with seven years to go and billions of dollars of expensive infrastructure projects to undertake and challenging security tasks to tackle, which characteristic is more important?