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Olympic Crackdown: Rio Scrambles to Squash Gangs Before Games

Image: A general view of the Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A general view of the Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2011. Felipe Dana / AP file

Brazil is busy getting Rio de Janeiro in shape for the World Cup this June and the 2016 Summer Olympics, two banner events that officials hope will cement the sprawling metropolis as a technicolor cultural capital.

But ahead of the fanfare, Brazilian officials are scrambling to squash the brutal gangsters who roam the hillside shanty towns bordering the future home of the games.

Authorities have ordered the state police to target criminals who kill with impunity — a tall order for a country with a sky-high murder rate.

The tough security crackdown is part of a wider national effort to stem the tide of violence that has turned swaths of the South American nation into lawless jungles and claimed the lives of more than 1.15 million people between 1980 and 2011 — a population roughly equivalent to that of Dallas, Texas.

"I worry about security before and after the Games. (But) during the Games, I can assure you great security."

But the looming sports bonanzas — a financial boon for a nation ambitious for a higher international profile — have given the crime clampdown a renewed urgency in recent months. Officials may be pushing for a brighter, cleaner Brazil that erases the memory of "City of God," the gritty 2002 movie that made Rio's youth gangs infamous.

Brazil ramps up security in Rio ahead of 2016 Games 1:47

"These criminal gangs have total control of certain poor areas," Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., told NBC News. "Dealing with them will be a challenge."

Officials are dealing with the challenge by clamping down harder on criminal elements.

A so-called "pacification" program — in which police keep an around-the-clock eye on violence-plagued favelas (slums) — has kicked into high gear in recent months as authorities snake through alleyways in pursuit of armed gunman, thieves and drug runners.

Military tanks have rumbled along city streets as police squads raid homes and businesses in search of drug traffickers and gunman. Officials are especially eager to curb the crime rate in Rio, where homicides have declined just slightly over the last year.

A Rio police official interviewed by NBC News partner ITV last October said the "pacification" campaign would benefit tens of thousands of citizens in the city's most vulnerable communities.

But, in the security squeeze, authorities were dogged by charges of brutality. Many residents of Rocinha — Brazil's largest slum just a stone's throw from Rio's ritzy shore — accused police of acting excessively.

Brazil appears to put security high on the list of public priorities.

"Safety is the first concern of every single Brazilian," Sotero said. "And not just for the rich or upper-middle-class — especially for the poor, because of the most violence hits impoverished neighborhoods."

Officials have pledged that Rio will be safe in time for the upcoming sports events — although at least one conceded that the task ahead won't be easy.

"I worry about security before and after the Games," Eduardo Paes, Rio's mayor, told NBC News. "(But) during the Games, I can assure you great security."

Ahead of World Cup, cops focus on Rio’s favelas 2:44

Despite official assurances, stomach-churning attacks and killings from recent history cast a shadow over the coming Olympic Games.

Last year, an American woman was gang-raped and beaten aboard a public transport van while her French boyfriend was chained, hit with a crowbar and forced to watch the assaults after the couple boarded the vehicle in Rio's glitzy Copacabana beach neighborhood, according to authorities.

"These criminal gangs have total control of certain poor areas... Dealing with them will be a challenge."

Rio, the first South American city to host the Summer Games, is already feeling the heart from Olympics officials fretting over bursting budgets, postponed construction projects and sewage-filled waters surrounding the future Olympic Park.

Brazil is surely eager to sidestep the embarrassment Russia suffered amid reports of shaky bathrooms and shady hotels during the festivities in Sochi. And the crime crackdown is just another daunting task facing a nation for which every second counts as the clock ticks toward 2016.