Rio police surround gang turf
Rio de Janeiro - Police searched homes and secured the perimeter of a Rio de Janeiro shantytown on Friday that has long been a stronghold for drug gangs and a symbol of the their ability to rule vast areas of the seaside city with impunity.
About 80 federal police officers joined state police in door-to-door searches in the Vila Cruzeiro slum as 800 military troops, trained in surrounding and isolating conflict areas, stood ready to back them up. The area had been taken by law enforcement just hours before during a five-hour operation using armoured vehicles and assault rifles.
Slum residents, streaming out down steep, narrow alleys to jobs in the city below, had mixed reactions as officers approached them. Some ran away, and others stayed to welcome and co-operate by showing their identification.
More than 80 abandoned motorcycles and at least one body were found during the search on Friday morning, reminders of the gang's quick retreat the day before to the neighbouring Alemao complex of shantytowns - among the best defended gang turf in the city.
About 192 people have been arrested or detained since the start of the widespread violence allegedly instigated by criminals since Sunday, according to police spokesperson Henrique de Lima Castro Saraiva.
More than 96 buses and cars have been burned on major roadways, many motorists have been robbed and police outposts have been shot in the city that will host the final match of the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympics.
It is unclear how many people died in Thursday's violence, but police said at least 25 have died since Sunday.
The military support was authorised late on Thursday by the president to help police keep their hold on the occupied area and prevent gang members from escaping.
"Anything we can do for Rio, we'll do," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told reporters from Guyana, where he is attending a summit of the Union of South American Nations. "It is not acceptable that 99% of well-meaning, hardworking people who want to live in peace are affected by violent groups."
Military spokesperson Enio Zanan said the military troops designated to help are trained in suppressing conflict and have served in Haiti. Two other battalions of 800 troops each could be deployed as needed over the next few days, he said.
Security officials declined to say if they would enter Alemao on Friday or if they would wait, invading the area sometime within the next six months, as had been planned earlier.
Brazil is trying to clean up the seaside city before 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 violence related to drug trafficking.
"We took from these people what has never before been taken - their territory, their safe harbour," Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame said. "It's important to arrest them, but it's more important to take their territory. If we don't take their territory, we can't advance."
Officials said Thursday's push into the Vila Cruzeiro shantytown killed at least eight people and left one police officer wounded.
The marines driving the armoured personnel carriers for the police for the most part did not engage in the fighting, security officials said. There no reports of the vehicles' heavy weapons being used in the slum.
Police had not released the identities of all those killed in five days of clashes, but spokesperson Lima Castro acknowledged on Wednesday that some "bystanders would be affected" by the battles.
The oldest patient admitted to 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, said Bravo, the Health Department spokesperson.