Rio cops take control of gang stronghold
Rio de Janeiro - Armoured vehicles rumbled through a sprawling Rio slum on Thursday as police said they had pried it back from drug gangs after a five-day assault that killed at least 30 people.
Gunfire crackled through the streets and residents took cover during the day as six M113 armoured personnel carriers armed with .50 calibre machine guns drove through Vila Cruzeiro, a shantytown in northern Rio de Janeiro.
"At this moment, Vila Cruzeiro belongs to the state," police spokesperson Rodrigo Oliveira said late on Thursday, adding that forces remained on alert.
The gangs had fought back by spraying police posts with machine gun fire and torching buses, sending dark smoke high above the ramshackle skyline.
TV helicopters orbiting overhead had shown scores of men with packs and automatic rifles scrambling up the hills beyond the slum ahead of the operation, while others fled in cars and motorcycles.
Many had come to Vila Cruzeiro to escape fighting in nearby districts, and it was not immediately clear whether the police had defeated the gangs or merely sent them scattering off to fight another day.
"We've taken an important step, but nothing's been won," state security chief Jose Beltrame told reporters, warning that operations would continue on Friday.
"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 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.
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."
"Many will die, but we need things to change here," said Jefferson, a 27-year-old bartender.
World Cup, Olympics
At the same time, he blamed local authorities for allowing the situation to fester, and attributed their 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.
Rio-born football star Ronaldo weighed in on Twitter, appealing for calm and saying, "I feel for the families who are suffering from violence."
Police say they have killed 30 suspected drug traffickers since the operation began on Sunday.
Their armoured vehicles were backed by helicopters, snipers and thousands of heavily armed men from the military police and navy, with another 17 500 reinforcements "on alert" for the operation.
Police said they were battling two factions of drug dealers 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 longtime 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 told AFP.
"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."
Gang members attacked police stations
Violence erupted late Sunday when gang members attacked police stations in northern Rio.
At least 180 people have been detained since then, and at least 60 vehicles, including nearly a dozen city buses, have been set ablaze.
Police have meanwhile erected checkpoints across neighborhoods 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.