RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 25, 2010 (AFP) - Armored 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 had crackled through the streets and residents took cover during the day as six M113 armored personnel carriers armed with .50 caliber machine guns drove through Vila Cruzeiro, a shantytown in northern Rio de Janeiro.
|Riot policemen get ready to enter Vila Cruzeiro shantytown on an armoured personnel carrier on November 25, 2010 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AFP|
"At this moment, Vila Cruzeiro belongs to the state," police spokesman Rodrigo Oliveira said late 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 above the fighting had meanwhile 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.
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 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.
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.
Police say they have killed 30 suspected drug traffickers since the operation began on Sunday.
Their armored 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.
The armored tracked vehicles, also known as Gavins, are nimble enough to climb the steep hills where the slums are located and can "roll over any obstacle they face," a police spokesman told local media.
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."
Violence erupted late Sunday when gang members attacked police stations in northern Rio.
At least 180 people have been detained since then, including many who were caught holding bottles of gasoline, according to police, who said they had also seized weapons and drugs.
At least 60 vehicles, including nearly a dozen city buses, have been set ablaze since the violence began, they said.
The urban warfare has paralyzed a large part of Rio, as local television has been dominated by images of buses engulfed in flames and heavily armed police and special forces fighting their way through the slums.
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.