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Cops, troops trap drug gang in Rio shantytown

Brazilian soldiers and police exchange gunfire with drug-gang members holed up in a massive slum complex Friday, but stand their ground, trapping the traffickers inside.
Image: A bus burns on Presidente Vargas avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro
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.HO / Reuters
/ Source: news services

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.

"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.

"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.

Toll climbs
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.

"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."