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Americas

Police seize Rio slum after five-day battle with drug gang

Video by Carla WESTERHEIDE

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-11-26

Police in Rio say they have gained control of a sprawling slum after five days of violent clashes with gang members who have run the shantytown for decades. At least 23 people have been killed and over 150 arrested during the operation.

 

AP - Elite police units riding in military armored vehicles rumbled through a heavily fortified slum Thursday hunting for drug gang leaders blamed for five days of violence, even as dozens of armed youths fled to a neighboring shantytown.
 
The push into the Vila Cruzeiro shantytown left at least eight people dead and one police officer wounded, authorities said. It is part of a police campaign to clean up Rio’s drug gang-ridden slums before the city hosts football’s World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later.
 
Gangs members have responded to the offensive against strongholds where they have held sway for decades by setting up roadblocks on major highways to rob motorists en masse, torching more than 40 cars and buses and shooting up police posts. Authorities say that when police arrive, gang members flee into nearby shantytowns.
 
The officers arrived in Vila Cruzeiro on Thursday under the cover of police helicopters and amid the rattle of gunfire despite the gang members’ efforts to block access with burning vehicles.
 
As police entered, dozens of gangsters were seen fleeing down jungle-covered hills, across an area known as “the green hell,” to a neighboring gang stronghold, the Alemao complex of shantytowns.
 
On Friday, the state police will have additional help from federal law enforcement to hold on to Vila Cruzeiro, Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame told reporters at a news conference.
 
Beltrame said the police were in Vila Cruzeiro “and we’re not leaving.”
 
Security officials said that while Brazil’s navy lent the armored vehicles to police, the marine drivers by and large did not engage in any fighting. The personnel carriers are armed with high-caliber gun turrets, but there were no reports that the larger weapons were used inside the slum.
 
Businesses in the neighborhood shut down during the operation, and officials sent 12,000 students home from 10 schools and a day care center in the region, the city’s education department said in a statement.
 
Police said they arrested 11 men and seized gallons of gasoline and sticks of dynamite Thursday.
 
Since late Sunday, authorities have arrested more than 150 suspects in police raids on nearly 30 shantytowns in the northern and western parts of Rio. At least 23 people have died, many of them suspected gang members, though police may not have accounted for all of those killed in Thursday’s operation.
 
Getulio Vargas state hospital, sitting at the foot of the hillside covered by the sprawling Vila Cruzeiro shantytown, took in 23 injured people in 24 hours, said the spokeswoman for the Rio state Health Department, Valeria Bravo.
 
Brazil is trying to clean up the seaside city ahead of 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 drug trafficking-related violence.
 
A member of the elite BOPE police unit who would only give his last name, Malta, waited Thursday for his turn to go into Vila Cruzeiro, passing the time eating salted peanuts and drinking Coke.
 
“The idea is to go in and take control,” said Malta, assault rifle strapped across his chest, his face smudged with black camouflage paint. “We can’t live like this, with these people threatening our families. It’s zero tolerance now.”
 
Several residents of the hillside community sat on the steps of shuttered storefronts, unable to go back home and unsure when their lives would return to normal.
 
“What am I going to do? I can’t go to work, I can’t go home,” said Maria das Gracas Fonseca, who cleans houses in an affluent neighborhood on the city’s south side. Her 7-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter sat next to her in the shade. They had no school Thursday, and no one to take care of them, Fonseca said.
 
“I need the work, but my children are more important,” she said. “I don’t even know where we’ll sleep tonight, but I will be with them.”
 
Police had not released the identities of all those killed in the five days of clashes, but spokesman Henrique de Lima Castro Saraiva acknowledged Wednesday that some “bystanders would be affected” by the battles.
 
The oldest patient taken in by Getulio Vargas hospital during the conflict was an 81-year-old who was grazed by a bullet, and the youngest, a 10-year-old child hit with grenade shrapnel, Bravo, the Health Department spokeswoman, said.
 
Four other city hospitals suspended non-emergency surgery so they could take in victims of the shootouts between gang members and police, she said.
 
Two blocks away from the hospital, Adriana Rodrigues de Souza waited for a bus and fanned her 15-year-old daughter, Jeanette, who was having a panic attack and suffering from asthma. The teenager was crying convulsively and hiding her face in her hands.
 
“She’s scared. It was the gunshots, these tanks,” the mother said, gesturing at the armored personnel carriers and trucks rumbling by, filled with men pointing their machine guns out the windows. “She can’t stop crying now, but I don’t even know when the next bus will run.”
 
Bus companies removed 115 vehicles from service Thursday for safety reasons, while gang members stopped and burned 11 others, said the Federation of Bus Companies of Rio, Fetranspor.
 
Cristiani Miguel de Santos stood outside a hospital near Vila Cruzeiro, having just dropped off a 24-year-old family member whose name she gave only as Bruno. He was shot in the arm by a stray bullet, she said.
 
Overwhelmed, she said she was very worried about the fighting. “The community where we live is no good anymore.”
 
Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame told CBN radio that the armored vehicles were only the “first dose” of support that Brazil’s military would lend to Rio’s police force. He did not elaborate on future plans, saying he didn’t want to put his men or citizens at risk.
 
“The navy is setting an example for the country,” Beltrame said. “(The navy) has the equipment, but it’s often unused. Why would (police) wait a year to get the equipment if the government already has it?”

 

Date created : 2010-11-26

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