Image: A bus burns in downtown Rio de Janeiro
HO  /  Reuters
A wave of violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro began on Sunday with attacks on police stations and the burning of vehicles. Authorities say the attacks are a protest by traffickers after being forced from their turf.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/26/2010 8:00:04 PM ET 2010-11-27T01:00:04

Brazilian soldiers and police exchanged gunfire with drug-gang members holed up in a massive slum complex Friday, but stood their ground, trapping the traffickers inside.

About 800 troops are supporting a huge police offensive at the Alemao complex of shantytowns, an operation that came just a day after police took control of a nearby slum that also had been a gang stronghold.

Authorities are not publicizing their plans, but it appears an invasion of Alemao, one of Rio's most dangerous slums, was imminent.

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"This is not the moment to circumvent risks, but rather to confront risks," said Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who traveled to Rio to meet with the state's governor and top security officials.

Military spokesman Enio Zanan said soldiers had been taking fire from drug-gang members hiding in the large complex. He earlier told The Associated Press the troops were not returning the fire, saying it would endanger "innocent people in the community."

AP Television News video, however, showed at least one soldier firing on the slum, and the newspaper O Globo reported heavy exchanges of gunfire between troops and drug gang members.

Zanan did not return calls for comment Friday night. A man who answered the phone at the army's western Rio headquarters said he could not confirm the involvement of troops in the fighting.

Zanan earlier said the confrontation had no set time or date to end and the troops were ready to stand constant guard as long as needed.

Sign of a new Rio
Federal and state police officers, meanwhile, conducted door-to-door searches and patrols within the Vila Cruzeiro slum near Alemao. The area was taken by officers Thursday afternoon during a five-hour operation using armored vehicles and assault rifles.

After police armored cars had their tires blown out by gangs or were stymied by burning tires, police relied on military armored personnel carriers equipped with caterpillar treads to roll over or push aside barriers and enter the fortified shantytown.

Officials trumpeted their victory Friday, hailing it as a sign of a new Rio.

The governor of Rio state, Sergio Cabral, said the moment was historic — for proving that no part of Rio was beyond the reach of the law, and for the unprecedented cooperation of the armed forces with police to bring peace to Rio, whose name has long evoked the violence of its lawless shantytowns.

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"We have demonstrated to those who don't respect the law ... the pre-eminence of a democratic state governed by the law," he said. "Bringing peace to this population makes this a very important day for Rio."

Jobim called the unprecedented cooperation of the armed forces a "change in paradigm" that would assure "peace and the exercise of human rights" in Rio de Janeiro.

Slum residents, streaming out down steep, narrow alleys to jobs in the city below, had mixed reactions as officers approached them. Some ran away, and others stayed to welcome them and cooperate by showing their identification.

Masked men, some dressed in shorts and camouflage T-shirts, defiantly waved their machineguns in the air. Others pointed their guns down the winding roads of the hilly slum, apparently on watch for advancing police officers.

Some of them fired shots at a police helicopter patrolling the area, according to a Reuters witness.

Marcilio Alves, treasurer of the residents association of Chatuba, one of the slums in the nearby Alemao complex of shantytowns, and whose son and ex-wife live in Vila Cruzeiro, said people were trying get back to their routines Friday.

But the community remained without electricity, as utility workers were afraid of going up the hillside to repair wiring damaged during the incursion. Residents were also nervous, because the police force's hold on the area was still seen as tenuous, and they were afraid that cooperating with law enforcement officials or talking to the news media would brand them as snitches if the gangs returned, Alves said.

"The police are saying they're going to bring order to the place, but who knows what will really happen," he said. "The traffickers, they're like a fever in a city that's sick: They go away but they come back."

More than 80 abandoned motorcycles and at least one body were found during the search Friday morning, reminders of the gang's quick retreat the day before to the Alemao complex - among the best-defended gang turf in the city.

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Nearly 200 people have been arrested or detained since the start of the widespread violence Sunday, said police spokesman Henrique de Lima Castro Saraiva. More than 96 buses and cars have been burned on major roadways, many motorists have been robbed and police outposts have been shot in the city that will host the final match of the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympics.

It is unclear how many people died in Thursday's violence, but police said at least 46 have been killed since Sunday, including 10 on Friday. Three police officers have been injured so far.

The military support was authorized late Thursday by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to help police keep their hold on the occupied area and prevent gang members from escaping.

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"Anything we can do for Rio, we'll do," Silva told reporters from Guyana, where he is attending a summit of the Union of South American Nations. "It is not acceptable that 99 percent of well-meaning, hardworking people who want to live in peace are affected by violent groups."

Zanan said the military troops designated to help are trained in suppressing conflict and have served in Haiti. Two other battalions of 800 troops each could be deployed as needed over the next few days, he said.

About 3,000 police reservists and retirees who are able to take on desk duties have volunteered to join the effort, the police and firefighter association said in a statement.

Security officials declined to say if they would enter Alemao on Friday or if they would wait, invading the area sometime within the next six months, as had been planned earlier.

"We'll invade Alemao at the right moment. We're depending on information from intelligence services," said Roberto Sa, Rio de Janeiro state's under-secretary of public security.

Brazil is trying to clean up the seaside city before the World Cup and Olympics. Over the past two years, authorities have established permanent police posts in 13 slums as part of an effort to bring basic services to the communities and rid them of violence related to drug trafficking.

"We took from these people what has never before been taken - their territory, their safe harbor," said Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame. "It's important to arrest them, but it's more important to take their territory."

Brazilian soccer authorities promised that the 2014 World Cup will take place in a "climate of normality" despite this week's violence between police and drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro.

"I ratify the confidence in the public authorities and recognize the effort by the state government of Rio de Janeiro with the aim of reducing urban violence," Brazilian Football Confederation president Ricardo Teixeira said in a statement Friday.

"It can be seen that society is reacting strongly against the incidents provoked by criminals, in a demonstration that public opinion supports the security policies.

"As a consequence, I can assure the sporting community that host city Rio de Janeiro will have the climate of normality necessary to stage the Confederations Cup in 2013 and the World Cup in 2014."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Violence in Brazil

  1. Transcript of: Violence in Brazil

    CARL QUINTANILLA, anchor: A tense situation in Brazil tonight, a police crackdown on drug gangs. Today armored military vehicles rolled into the slums of Rio de Janeiro backed by hundreds of agents. Live pictures on Brazilian television showed gang members, some with automatic weapons, trying to escape. Thirty have died since the offensive began on Sunday. Brazil is scrambling to clean up Rio , host city for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics .

Photos: A wave of violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro

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  1. Policemen put marijuana in a helicopter after an operation in the Complexo do Alemao shantytown taken by the army and the police without the armed resistance they expected. in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday, Nov. 28. (Miguel Fernandes / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Armed police gather as they take part in a raid on the shantytown of Alemao on Nov. 28, in Rio de Janeiro. After days of preparation, Brazilian security forces launched a raid against a slum where between 500 and 600 drug traffickers were holed up and refused to surrender. (Jefferson Bernardes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An alleged drug trafficker known as Zeu, center, is arrested during a police operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Nov. 28. (Silvia Izquierdo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Children play in a pool at the a house of an alleged drug trafficker at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28. (Andre Penner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A policeman jumps over a door during the raid in the Morro do Alemao shantytown on Nov. 28. (Jefferson Bernardes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A resident holding a baby hides behind a door as an armored police vehicle patrols during an operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28. (Andre Penner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Police officers inspect a place used by drug traffickers to produce drugs at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Nov. 28. (Andre Penner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Police take position during an operation against drug traffickers at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Nov. 28. (Andre Penner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A Brazilian soldier takes part in an operation against drug traffickers in the Grota slum of Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, Nov. 27. Dozens of people have been killed during the past week in clashes between drug gangs and the security forces that are trying to break their hold on the slums, according to authorities. (Fernando Bizerra Jr / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Soldiers patrol a street during an operation against drug traffickers at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 27. Security forces were preparing to invade in an effort to push drug gangs out an area long considered the most dangerous in Rio, a city set to host the 2016 Olympics. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An alleged drug trafficker aims a weapon while escaping on a motorcycle at the Complexo do Alemao in Rio. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A photographer takes his position behind an empty water tank during an operation in the Alemao slum. Police gave drug traffickers holed up in the hillside slum an ultimatum on Saturday to turn themselves in. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People shout for help for an unconscious man who was apparently injured after a house caught fire during shooting as a result of a police operation in the Complexo do Alemao slum. (Silvia Izquierdo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A child reacts during shooting between police and drug traffickers in the Complexo do Alemao slum. (Silvia Izquierdo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A handcuffed suspect caught in Alemao slum sits in a police bus. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Two women carry a birthday cake in the middle of an operation against drug traffickers in the Grota slum. (Marcelo Sayao / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. In this image taken through a car window, soldiers are seen during an operation against drug traffickers in the Complexo do Alemao slum. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A bus burns in the Maria da Graca neighborhood on Nov. 26. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Suspected drug gang members take positions in the Grota slum. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Soldiers unload an armored vehicle before an operation Nov. 26 in the Vila Cruzeiro slum. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Drug gang members leave the Vila Cruzeiro slum Nov. 25. (Stringer/brazil / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Two women take cover from shooting during a police operation Nov. 25 in the Vila Cruzeiro slum. (Silvia Izquierdo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Residents look at a burned bus Nov. 24 after an attack in the Vicente de Carvalho neighborhood. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A policeman checks suspects Nov. 24 during an operation in the Jacarezinho slum. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Policemen carry a suspected drug trafficker Nov. 23 after a shootout in the Mandela 2 slum. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. View of a police cabin bulletproof window following attacks by drug dealers Nov. 22 in Benfica, on the outskirts of Rio. (Antonio Scorza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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