Rio cops claim victory after invasion
Rio de Janeiro - Rio police backed by helicopters and armoured vehicles invaded a shanty town complex long held by traffickers on Sunday, quickly taking over the key drug gang stronghold in a historic victory for the city hosting the 2016 Olympics.
Black-clad officers from elite police units seized the Alemao slum complex amid heavy fire, with police and army helicopters flying low to support the men on the ground. But the officers encountered less resistance than expected, even if many gang members still remained inside.
"We won," said Mario Sergio Duarte, head of Rio state's military police. "We brought freedom to the residents of Alemao."
The operation was crucial to the city's campaign to push criminals out of slums where they have ruled with impunity, an effort to secure Rio before the city hosts World Cup matches in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics.
The operation came after gangs unleashed a week of violence in the city, with more than 100 cars and buses set on fire and at least 35 deaths, mostly of suspected traffickers. The burning of vehicles had become a hallmark of the gangs' bloody protest against the tougher policing programme.
There were no immediate reports of injuries in Sunday's invasion, which began just after sunrise. Police said they captured large amounts of weapons, ammunition and drugs in the complex, which includes a dozen slums that are home to at least 85 000 people.
"When we got in, it was a critical moment, but we now we have control of the territory, it's all calm," police inspector Rodrigo Oliveira said.
"There is no doubt that Rio residents have reason to celebrate today. The complex was seen as a fortress for drug traffickers and in less than two hours we took control."
Some gunmen began to surrender and some were arrested, but police were still searching the shacks on the hills of the shanty town to try to find those trying to flee.
"We have to be careful because they may be trying to set up traps for our men," Duarte said. But he promised that "we won't leave a place unchecked."
At least five police helicopters were buzzing above the Alemao searching for gang members.
Police and troops moved into the slum inside armoured vehicles as residents watched from their windows in shacks packed along the hills. Big tracked armoured personnel carriers rolled in and out of the slum entrances, carrying soldiers with painted faces.
Vehicles from the forestry service carried troops to the jungle areas inside the slum to cut back trees and eliminate possible escape routes.
Many residents were thrilled with the police operation.
Praying for peace
"Fantastic, this is exactly the thing we needed," said Ana Costa, 48, who lives a block from the slum in the Penha neighbourhood.
"This community has been so violent for so long that I never thought that I would see this day," she said as armoured vehicles rushed by her house. "I still have my doubts, but I'm praying that peace has finally come here."
Hundreds of soldiers in camouflage and elite and regular police had been surrounding the Alemao since Saturday night, sheltering behind the armoured vehicles. They had exchanged intermittent, heavy gunfire with gang members at many of the 44 entrances to the slum where about 600 armed gang members were believed to be trapped.
As the troops and gangsters faced off, Rio saw its calmest night in a week, with only one volley of gunfire heard overnight in the slum. For the first time in more than a week, no vehicles were burned.
Saraiva said police had given gang members until sunset on Saturday to surrender, and he described them as "exhausted, hungry, thirsty, stressed out." But they did not give up, so police moved in.
Authorities had already seized the Vila Cruzeiro slum, which was once thought virtually impenetrable. More than 200 armed gang members fled that offensive and ran to the nearby Alemao.
Rio de Janeiro's governor, Sergio Cabral, has vowed repeatedly to break the back of drug gangs that have ruled hundreds of shanty towns in the city of 6 million people.
The human rights organisation Amnesty International complained that police had been too heavy-handed in their offensive.