They go by names like "Scooby" and "Big Baby" but carry the best weapons money can buy, are accused of torturing cops and even managed to shoot down a police helicopter.
They are drug dealers who hold court deep inside most of Rio de Janeiro's 1,000 slums, surrounded by foot soldiers carrying Belgian-made assault rifles, Israeli pistols, grenades, anti-aircraft weapons and endless rounds of ammunition.
The criminals drew international attention this week following bloody shootouts that left more than 40 people dead, just days after Rio was awarded the 2016 Olympic Games.
Authorities have pledged to crack down harder than ever on the criminals to ensure safety for the Olympics — while assuring the rest of the world that the violence is actually restricted to small areas of this seaside city of 6 million people, famed for its raucous Carnival and gorgeous beaches.
"There have always been those mini-regions in Rio de Janeiro where drug traffickers dominate," said Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame.
Slums controlled by druglords
Beltrame concedes, however that those "mini-regions" can be found in slums dotting every corner of Rio, rich and poor.
Ask any of the 2 million slum dwellers — taxi drivers, businessmen, housewives, barbers, and police officers — whose lives are dominated by drug chieftains and violent militias, and they will tell you that defeating the criminals is formidable, if not impossible.
"The police are playing a game they have already lost," said vegetable seller Roberto Lima, tending his small stand at the base of the Tabajaras slum in Copacabana, where a heavy police patrol came through the day before. "They have to make their efforts, we understand. But they are working outside the reality that they don't control this place."
Lima's remarks reflect the fatalistic attitude pervading nearly every conversation about controlling crime in Rio. The statistics show why: In 2008, there were 5,717 homicides in Rio state, the vast majority in Rio de Janeiro's metropolitan area. In comparison, Vancouver, Canada, which will host the 2010 Winter Olympics, had a total of 58 slayings last year.
Viva Rio, a Brazilian organization that aims to rid the city of arms, recently released a report stating that criminals in Brazil have three times as many weapons as police.
Beltrame describes the difficulty of confronting the criminals on their own turf: "When we enter a slum ... where they have their stockpile of weapons and ammunition," the criminals are "defending their territory and reacting against police as if it were a war."
Brazilian newspapers this week published several photos of masked gunmen, proudly displaying their assault rifles in broad daylight while standing atop hillside slums, seemingly daring authorities to take them on.
This week's shootouts were yet another episode in an ever-repeating cycle of violence: About 150 members of the Red Command drug gang in northern Rio invaded the Monkey Hill slum controlled by rivals before dawn last Saturday.
Intense gunfire ensued and police responded as they had many times before, in helicopters that hovered over the scene while fellow officers battled criminals on the ground below. But this time, for the first time, one of those helicopters was shot down, crash-landing in flames in a football field and killing three officers — just one mile from the Maracana stadium, where the Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies and the 2014 World Cup final will be held.
In the days since, more than 2,000 officers have responded, invading more than a dozen slums in search of those responsible.
'War without end'
Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up: Two men were found shot to death Friday, their corpses left in a homemade cart, while four other bodies were found nearby. Earlier this week, a slum dweller delivered two dead men to a hospital in his van, telling police that traffickers ordered him to.
Authorities pledge to ramp up their actions against the tens of thousands of drug gang members who they say present the biggest obstacle to the city's peace and tranquility.
"We're going to smother these traffickers and give them no breathing room," police Col. Marcus Jardim told reporters this week. "We're going in with rifles in hand. Society wants answers. We're going to hunt down these criminals."
Taxi driver Alexandre Baldi, who lives near a slum in Rio's center, has his doubts.
"It's a war without end," he said. "The police can't occupy every slum."
Beltrame hopes the latest violence — erupting as it did when the city was under the Olympic spotlight — will galvanize Brazil's leaders to aggressively tackle crime and "look for a solution that is definitive, visible, palatable and concrete to deliver to society."
The federal government responded earlier this week with a promise of $55 million in new funding for Rio police and a new, bullet-resistant helicopter.
Abandoned by the government
But if the words of a Red Command drug gang leader are to be believed, that will not be nearly enough to tackle a problem with social and political implications that extend beyond the scope of law enforcement.
"The government has totally abandoned these areas," the 26-year-old leader told The Associated Press earlier this year as he stood on a dirt street populated by hundreds of shacks and polluted by open sewers. The leader spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to draw attention from police.
"There is no flag here — the authorities are simply not present," said the gang member, who had two 9 mm pistols tucked into the waistband of his shorts.
"The entire policing policy is inverted," added Camilla Ribeiro, with Global Justice, a human rights group in Rio. "Before searching for a solution using armed police, the state has to create economic alternatives, invest in education and health."
No lasting peace?
Tim Cahill, a Brazil researcher for Amnesty International, said that some new community-policing programs that include increased spending on education and health show promise, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and there will not be lasting peace in the city without major policy shifts.
"We still see large-scale operations ... still see the same mentality of conflict rather than the provision of security," he said. "If there is to be a long-term fundamental change on the ground there has to be a change in this mentality."
Police have faced harsh criticism from human rights activists and the United Nations, which last year issued a report stating that law enforcement officers are responsible for three deaths each day in Rio.
But Beltrame said few understand the reality his forces confront. He said while his officers follow a globally recognized order in enforcing public security — prevention, protection, reaction — "we have to deal with something few others face — armed combat with drug traffickers who are equipped with heavy weapons coming from abroad."
"That is a unique attribute our police deal with."