Police raided gang-ruled shantytowns Wednesday, setting off clashes that killed 14 people as authorities try to halt a wave of violent crime that has rattled rich and poor alike in a city that Brazil hopes to make a showplace for the 2016 Olympics.
Police invaded the Vila Cruzeiro community and surrounding slums early in the day, engaging in intense gunbattles. Twenty-five people were detained.
"We didn't start this war," police spokesman Henrique de Lima Castro Saraiva said. "We were provoked. But we will emerge victorious."
Over the past three days, 21 people had been killed and about 150 arrested during sweeps by 17,500 officers, Lima Castro said. Two officers suffered minor wounds in Wednesday's fighting.
A wave of recent gang violence has shaken Rio and raised further doubts about Rio's ability to safely host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. It also marred the image of a city known for its beaches and easy-going tropical lifestyle.
Authorities say gangs are lashing back in response to a law-enforcement drive to regain control of territory the past two years. The police force has been assigned an additional 1,200 officers to fend off attacks.
A wave of recent gang violence has shaken Rio. Authorities say gangs are lashing back in response to a law-enforcement drive to regain control of territory the past two years. The police force has been assigned an additional 1,200 officers to fend off attacks.
"We are stepping up our efforts," Lima Castro said. "We will be even more trenchant tomorrow."
Most of the violence was concentrated in the city's poor northern and western neighborhoods. Robber gangs have erected roadblocks where they have stopped cars and buses and set 29 vehicles on fire since the clashes began Sunday. One man was killed Wednesday when he refused to stop at a roadblock.
Police said they had not yet identified all the dead or determined what connection, if any, they had to drug trafficking or other crimes.
"Bystanders may be affected," Lima Castro said.
As bodies arrived at the Getulio Vargas state hospital in northern Rio, desperate relatives insisted their loved ones were innocent victims and lashed out at police and drug dealers alike.
"Congratulations, congratulations for killing another innocent victim," screamed a distraught man who identified himself as the father of 14-year-old Rosangela Barbosa Alves. Barbosa was killed by a stray bullet at her home in Vila Cruzeiro.
The father did not want to give his own name for fear of retaliation.
"There are three children (who were shot and killed) ... and no one does anything," added a weeping female relative of Barbosa who also declined to be identified. "The criminals are never killed."
The relatives of another victim, identified by the health department as Rafael Felipe Goncalves, 29, wrapped his body in a blanket and carried it down a steep slope leading to the hospital. He had been shot in the head and was dead on arrival.
"He is not a criminal," cried a man who identified himself as the victim's brother.
Security officials say the roadblock robberies and other gang violence are aimed at bringing a halt to a police campaign to force the groups out of the city's numerous shantytowns, where they have long ruled with impunity.
Thirteen shantytowns have been freed of gangs over the past two years. The plan is to liberate 40 — a small fraction of Rio's more than 1,000 slums — in time for the 2014 World Cup.
Police said a note found on a burning bus Wednesday warned that if law enforcement continues to push drug dealers out of the slums, Rio won't be able to host the Olympics.
Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame said security forces will not be deterred.
"This is not an easy task, but it is also an opportunity to build a better city," Beltrame told Globo TV on Wednesday. "We are not giving back one millimeter. Their threat shows we are on the right path. They're being affected."
Rio's governor, Sergio Cabral, urged calm.
"What the bandits want is panic," he told CBN radio Wednesday. "We are facing a desperate reaction from criminals. But we are not going to despair."
Police have responded to the roadblock robberies by deploying riot officers on expressways into the city of 6 million people and sending patrols into more than 27 gang-controlled shantytowns to find gang members they hold responsible for the attacks.
Violence has plagued Rio for decades, but most has been contained within the slums that cling to the hillsides. Now, a few of the recent attacks have spilled into middle-class and wealthier neighborhoods closer to the beach, spreading fears that police are losing control of the city.
"The scary part is that now it's getting close to us. Before the violence was always far away," said Olga Silveira, who was milling around a plaza in the wealthy Ipanema neighborhood where police on Wednesday blew up a large, empty wooden box mistakenly feared to contain explosives. "Now we're feeling it on our flesh. The criminals have discovered the power they have and they want to show it."