Image: Police officers place a Brazilian flag atop a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Silvia Izquierdo  /  AP
Police officers place a Brazilian flag atop the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/29/2010 11:59:10 AM ET 2010-11-29T16:59:10

Rio's top security official hailed the taking by authorities of what was long the most dangerous slum in the city that will host the 2016 Olympics, as operations continued Monday to locate drug gang members thought to be hiding inside.

Meanwhile authorities, jubilant at the sudden, dramatic shift that saw them take control of two gang strongholds long thought untouchable, were already setting their sites on the next targets.

Rio state public security director Jose Beltrame, who has been criticized by human rights groups in the past for tough policing methods, was humble, emotional and thrilled after police and soldiers seized control of the Alemao complex of about a dozen slums. For decades, it had been the key territory of Rio's biggest drug gang, the Red Command.

"The Alemao was the heart of evil," Beltrame said at a late Sunday news conference.

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But he emphasized that his two-year-old program to push gangs out of the city's sprawling shantytowns and replace them with permanent police posts was only beginning, that he was now looking ahead to the next huge slum that police will go after — Rocinha, a sprawl of shanties and narrow alleys that is one of Latin America's largest slums.

He did not detail when police might attempt to wrestle Rocinha from the drug gang that controls it, but he was resolute and confident in saying that it would definitely fall.

"Criminals without a house, criminals without a weapon, criminals without territory, criminals without money are far less criminal than they were before," said Beltrame, on the verge of tears, voice cracking. "We have not won the war, but we've won a difficult and important battle."

Story: 'We won': Rio cops claim victory at gang haven

He spoke hours after 2,600 police and soldiers poured into Alemao at sunrise, supported by armored personnel carriers, low-flying helicopters buzzing the slum and even a few tanks. They claimed victory within two hours, saying they had taken control with little fighting in the district of 85,000 residents.

It was the biggest advance yet in the two-year effort to drive gangs from their strongholds in the hundreds of shantytowns, many draped across the hills that look down on Rio's fabled beaches.

The crusade is driven in part by the need to make foreign visitors feel secure for the final matches of the 2014 World Cup and for the 2016 Olympics that are meant to be showpieces of Brazil's emergence as growing world force.

Alemao was a key target because it sits near a highway that connects most of Rio to the international airport. Rocinha, the next target, lies on a road that will connect the main 2016 Olympic venues to the rest of the city.

Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sergio Cabral said the campaign against gangs will go forward.

"We will continue to conquer more territories and give peace to our citizens and the foreign visitors who come here," he told Globo TV.

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Officials have already imposed order on more than a dozen other former gang strongholds, even encouraging tourism along streets once echoing with gunfire.

The gangs reacted violently to the campaign a week ago, staging mass robberies of motorists on key highways, burning more than 100 buses and cars, and shooting up police outposts.

The government counterattacked with hundreds of soldiers and thousands of police in armored vehicles, first driving gangsters from the Vila Cruzeiro slum Thursday, then moving on to neighboring Alemao — their most ambitious target yet.

At least 36 people, mostly suspected drug traffickers, died in the gang violence and resulting police raids over the past week.

Sporadic shootouts expected
Officials earlier warned that as many as 600 gang members were holed up in Alemao, but by Monday police had made just 20 arrests, including a few of the slum's reputed top gang leaders.

Police estimated at least 200 gangsters remained hidden in the slum and warned that sporadic shootouts were likely in the coming days as security forces searched the zone.

At least one suspected trafficker was killed in the invasion and at least two people were injured.

"We won," said Mario Sergio Duarte, head of Rio state's military police. "We brought freedom to the residents of Alemao."

Since crime started surging in the 1980s, Brazilian politicians often have treated the problem as a long-term sociological ill rather than one that can be solved by police.

Slideshow: A wave of violence in Rio de Janeiro (on this page)

But key politicians now appear fully on board with tougher law enforcement, from Rio's mayor to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor as of January, Dilma Rousseff.

The financial resources for a long-term police presence in troubled areas are also present for the first time.

Companies such as Coca-Cola and local bank Bradesco have donated millions of dollars this year to help fund police operations, sensing the moment is ripe to combat a problem that costs Brazil as much as $100 billion a year in security, lost investment and productivity, according to the World Bank.

'The gangs will be back'
Inside the the Alemao slum, big piles of trash dotted a main dirt road that ran with raw sewage. The iron gates of storefronts were drawn down, their surfaces pocked with bullet holes. Spent rifle casings littered streets.

Slum residents, under siege for days, took advantage of the calm to buy food. Old women, young boys and teenagers leaned against their squat shacks surveying the new scene, but often hurried inside when a police contingent walked by.

Some residents said the government was a negligible presence in the area for at least a decade and expressed fear the police hold would not last.

A young pregnant woman voiced her doubts in a whisper and declined to give her name in fear of both the gangs and the police officers standing guard a few feet away.

"The gangs will be back. I have no doubt they escaped and will return after the police leave," she said. "How big a police post will they need to secure this whole place? I don't think they can do it."

Video: Bieber mural in drug kingpin's home (on this page)

Francisco Antonio Xavier, a 34-year-old cook who lives in the slum with his wife and two young children, was more optimistic.

"I always hoped, I always knew they would come," he said of the police. "It's going to be a calmer place to live. Everybody is loving this. From today onward life is going to get better."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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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Video: Bieber mural in drug kingpin's home

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