Soldiers and police fought with gangsters in the alleys of a sprawling shantytown, blocking the escape of drug traffickers in a confrontation that promised residents of Rio de Janiero a dangerous weekend.
Brazilian authorities did not detail their plans yesterday, but it appeared security forces were preparing to invade the Alemao complex, a group of more than a dozen of Rio’s most menacing slums.
About 800 soldiers began providing support on Friday for a police offensive in which the previous day officers took back control of a nearby slum where gangs had held sway for decades. Authorities began raids on slums after a surge of gang violence broke out last Sunday.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to get these criminals,” Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame told the Globo television network. “The anguish of Rio’s citizens is my anguish. But we have our objectives and we cannot retreat.”
Officials are also concerned about the image of the city that will host the final match of the 2014 World Cup and Summer Olympics in 2016.
Military spokesman Enio Zanan said soldiers came under fire from drug gang members hiding in the large Alemao complex, but the troops were not shooting back because it would endanger “innocent people in the community”.
AP Television News video, however, showed at least one soldier firing his assault rifle at the slum, and the newspaper O Globo reported heavy exchanges of gunfire between troops and gang members. Police said at least 32 people – mostly suspected drug gang members – had been killed in the battles since Sunday.
Beyond the deaths, basic services such as mail delivery and shops were disrupted as workers stayed home out of fear or because bus companies kept vehicles off the roads for safety reasons. Many schools remained closed on the city’s poorer north side. Trains connecting the suburbs to the city had 10,000 fewer riders yesterday. Bars and restaurants were empty.
Trash collection was suspended in the conflict zone and electricity was disrupted after cables were damaged during clashes between police and gunmen. The company which delivers electricity said it wasn’t safe for its workers to enter the slums.
While gunfire rattled in Alemao, federal and state police conducted door-to-door searches and patrols in the nearby Vila Cruzeiro slum. That area had been seized by officers during a five-hour operation using armoured vehicles and assault rifles.
After police armoured cars had their tyres blown out by gangs or were stymied by burning tyres, police relied on military armoured personnel carriers equipped with caterpillar treads to roll over or push aside barriers and enter the fortified shantytown. Officials trumpeted their success in Vila Cruzeiro, hailing it as a sign of a new Rio.
The governor of Rio state, Sergio Cabral, said the moment was historic, proving that no part of Rio was beyond the reach of the law. He hailed the co-operation of the armed forces with police to bring peace to Rio, a city infamous for 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.”
Nearly 200 people have been arrested or detained since the start of the widespread violence a week ago, police spokesman Henrique de Lima Castro Saraiva said.
More than 96 buses and cars were burned on roads and police outposts have been attacked.