RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Imagine the vast majority of businesses in a city with twice as many people as Chicago closing for the day -- on the orders of a drug gang.
Such was the case on Monday in this picturesque beach town renowned for its physical beauty -- and its criminal violence -- when schools, banks and retailers of every type closed their doors on the command of drug lords. And all this took place just six days before a presidential election.
When this reporter first moved to Rio, it was made quite clear by Brazilians and foreigners alike that I was to live in one of the world's most violent cities. One hears this dire warning repeatedly, but until Monday I never quite understood the far- reaching power that drug gangs have over this metropolis.
I hadn't heard anything in the morning about the shutdown of businesses and schools -- ordered by the Red Command gang as a protest against the prison conditions of its incarcerated leader, the powerful Luiz Fernando da Costa, better known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or Seaside Freddie.
The police in Rio have increased their battle of late against the gangs that maintain complete control of this city's favelas, or slums.
Law officials came under intense political pressure in June to rein in the gangs after one drug lord had a prominent journalist, Tim Lopes, captured and summarily executed. He had angered gangs with his undercover reports on their drug trade and sexual abuse of underage girls.
The order to close Rio on Monday came on the heels of the latest prison uprising in Brazil -- a common occurrence, which is usually invoked in the name of improving conditions in the country's over-crowded jails.
As of Monday evening, 19 people had been arrested for influencing businesses to close, and local press reports indicated that some 45,000 police officers were on duty as night fell -- the entire force.
But when I exited my apartment to grab an early lunch Monday, I had yet to hear of the gang's action. I found the streets terribly quiet for a work day. Why were four police officers sitting outside my building? How odd, I thought, that my corner newspaper stand was shuttered.
As I made my way through my upscale neighborhood of Ipanema, I saw that my local hardware store, snack shop, mini-market and even the guy who makes copies of keys from a corner stand were nowhere to be found.
"It is Monday, isn't it?" I asked a foreign friend who was dining with me. Indeed, it was. "It might be a holiday," I noted, embarrassed that as a journalist, I could have missed this fact.
A pertinent cultural note to let you know just how far-reaching the forced closings were: even McDonald's shut its doors. The French anti-globalization activist Jose Bove could only accomplish that feat by smashing through the Golden Arches with a tractor.
I found that exactly one restaurant was open, although it was oddly vacant. Upon entering, I asked the waiter if it was a national holiday. Strangely jumpy, he told me: "I will explain it to you when you are finished eating."
Sitting in the open air cafe, I began to notice an abundance of police officers on the street, who aren't exactly known to have a strong presence in Rio. I noticed the staff of the restaurant kept shifty eyes on the sidewalk. After eating and paying my tab, I got the scoop from the waiter.
"All the business are closed on orders of the traffickers," he said in a conspiratorial tone. "Our owner is making us stay here."
I nearly demanded my tip back for his failure to divulge this potentially dangerous information before I sat down to eat, but figured he deserved it as hazard pay.
Walking about Ipanema, it all began to make sense.
I saw police officers explaining to middle-aged women walking their poodles what was happening. The construction workers usually jack-hammering in the street underneath my window were absent. Taxi drivers stood in groups, waiting for fares that wouldn't come. Doormen for the apartment buildings -- normally a chatty lot, walking about the street -- stood inside the iron gates surrounding the entrance doors, eyes alert.
The omnipresent children kicking soccer balls were safely locked away in their homes.
This stunning city is dotted by favelas, which cling to steep hills, looming over the more affluent neighborhoods below. Often when police make the arrest of a prominent drug lord, the gangs will order businesses and schools in a favela and those near it to close, mostly to show the police who is in control.
But local officials said they couldn't remember when an order had such widespread effect as it did Monday. Most neighborhoods across the city were affected.
The types of businesses that defied the Red Command's orders to close fell into two categories: corner fruit drink stands and the small bars where men gather to drink bottles of beer.
None of the owners of these establishments would talk to a reporter to explain why they had stayed open, perhaps fearing retribution. But even the most casual observer of Brazilian life knows that these are the essential gathering places of locals -- for beer, beloved fruit drinks and lively conversation. But few people were frequenting the establishments Monday.
One woman working in a lone pharmacy that was open noted: "I will be unemployed if I leave. It's complicated, you know?"
Paulo Cesear, a 28-year-old just finishing a jog, said the forced closings didn't necessarily bother him and that he didn't feel particularly threatened.
"I have never had any problems with the traffickers, I have never been assaulted," he said. "I think it is more of a political thing, the traffickers wanting to show their power."
A good point, considering that the Red Command has unsuccessfully tried to seek formal representation in Brazil's Congress.
Ana Luiza Constantino said that she didn't feel more fearful to walk the streets of Rio on Monday than any other day.
"This is absurd, our city is so disorganized that anything can happen," she said. "But I am not more scared today. I have a constant fear."