RIO DE JANEIRO – Military armored vehicles carried police into the heart of a gang stronghold, chasing gunmen into nearby shantytowns and setting the stage for what many people expect to be a bloody battle in Rio’s offensive to quell a surge of criminal violence.
Authorities didn’t say if police would immediately push into those slums, but said federal police would join the operation Friday to help hold territory taken from the gangs.
At least 350 officers from Rio’s elite police unit and regular policemen were ferried to the top of the Vila Cruzeiro slum Thursday in armored vehicles on loan from the nation’s navy.
By midafternoon, live aerial television footage showed dozens of heavily armed gangsters fleeing from the slum into a jungle area and then calmly walking into the nearby Alemao complex of more than a dozen shantytowns.
Police have long called Alemao one of the two strongest areas being targeted in a two-year-old aggressive policing program that has seen officers enter 13 slums and push out drug gangs that had maintained absolute rule in the areas for decades.
Security officials declined to say if they would enter Alemao on Friday — or if they would wait an invade the area sometime later within the next six months, as had earlier been planned.
Raids on gangs this week came in response to widespread violence that the criminals allegedly have inflicted since Sunday. More than 40 buses and cars have been burned on major roadways, motorists robbed en masse and police outposts shot up in the city that will host the final match of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
At least 23 people have been killed in the clashes, most of them suspected drug gang members. Since late Sunday, authorities have arrested more than 150 people in raids on nearly 30 shantytowns in the northern and western parts of Rio.
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.
“We took from these people what has never before been taken — their territory, their safe harbor,” 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. Police said they arrested 11 men and seized gallons of gasoline and sticks of dynamite.
The marines driving the armored 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 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.
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 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, said Bravo, the Health Department spokeswoman.
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.”