Rio braces for more violence in drug crackdown

Brazil`s Defence Ministry approves deployment of more troops for operation.

Rio de Janeiro: Residents of Rio`s northern slums braced for more violence on Friday as hundreds of reinforcements joined a widening crackdown on drug gangs that has killed 30 people in six days.

Thursday saw armoured vehicles rumble through the pockmarked streets of the Vila Cruzeiro slum as elite police units backed by helicopters and snipers battled drug traffickers under a cloud of black smoke from torched buses.

Police claimed to have wrested control of the densely populated area back from drug gangs but TV helicopters filmed scores of armed men fleeing up the surrounding hills into neighboring districts.

"We`ve taken an important step, but nothing`s been won," state security chief Jose Beltrame told reporters, warning that operations would continue.

"It`s important to arrest people, to gather up drugs and ammunition, but it`s more important to get them out of the territory," he said, referring to the drug traffickers that rule many of Rio`s largest slums.

Brazil`s Defence Ministry, meanwhile, approved the deployment of another 800 troops, 10 armoured vehicles and two Air Force helicopters to support the operations, an indication that the fighting was far from over.

Six M113 armoured personnel carriers armed with .50 calibre machine guns drove through Vila Cruzeiro as gunmen attacked police posts with machine guns and torched dozens of vehicles.

The tank-like M113s and several helicopters accompanied thousands of heavily armed troops from the military police and the Navy.

Residents expressed shock at the scale of the operation, but many welcomed what they said was long-overdue action to combat the gangs and, in a sign the crackdown may be working, spoke out openly in support of the police.

"I`ve never seen anything like this! It`s a real war operation," said Elias, a 44-year-old school principal. "But it is necessary. This is the only way to confront the drug traffickers."

Others blamed local authorities for allowing the situation to fester, and attributed the new-found urgency to the city`s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics two years later.

Elsewhere, Brazilians have been glued to the continuous coverage of the violence on local television, which has shown buses engulfed in flames and elite police units battling their way through the slums.

Police say they have killed 30 suspected drug traffickers since the violence erupted late Sunday with gang members attacking police stations across northern Rio.

Police have said they are battling two drug gangs that have joined forces seeking to disrupt a two-year-old pacification program aimed at wresting the densely populated areas from the gangs` grip.

But Marcelo Freixo, a state deputy from Rio and long-time critic of local police tactics, said the operation would accomplish little.

"The police can enter Vila Cruzeiro and kill another hundred, but that won`t solve the problem in Rio de Janeiro," he said.

"The finger that pulls the trigger is not the same as the one that counts the money from arms smuggling, and in that sense the government appears to be concerned with only one of them."

At least 180 people have been detained since the operation began and at least 60 vehicles, including nearly a dozen city buses, have been set ablaze.

Police have, meanwhile, erected checkpoints across neighbourhoods seized earlier in the week where they keep a tense watch over mostly empty streets.

Around two million of Rio`s inhabitants -- a third of the population -- live in more than 1,000 slums locally known as "favelas”. Authorities hope to pacify 100 of the most violent ones by 2014.

In October 2009, drug gangs shot down a police helicopter near the Maracana stadium -- one of the main sites of the upcoming World Cup -- killing three officers.

Bureau Report