19 Killed as Police Battle Drug Gangs in Rio
Shootouts Add To Alarm Over City's Violence

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 19, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, April 18 -- Shootouts involving rival drug gangs and police in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday left at least 19 people dead and sent pedestrians scrambling for shelter, intensifying the Brazilian city's growing concerns about deadly violence.

The main shootout began in the early morning when two of the drug trafficking gangs that control many of the city's shantytowns began fighting for control of Morro da Mineira, a disputed area located near the city's downtown. Police eventually joined in the battle, and the shooting spilled out of the shantytown-- known in Brazil as a favela -- and into a bordering neighborhood and cemetery.

A military police spokesman reported Wednesday that at least 13 suspected gang members were killed in that gunfight -- four killed by police, nine killed by other gang members -- and several more injured, including innocent passersby. The shootout came hours after another confrontation killed at least six suspected drug dealers in another favela on the city's west side.

Gangs and police have waged battles for years in Rio's favelas, but public concern over violence has soared in recent months largely because of several high-profile cases. Tuesday's violence was among the deadliest this year.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last week met with military officials to discuss the possibility of deploying the armed forces to help combat the violence. Justice Minister Tarso Genro this week announced that the federal government would send hundreds more officers from elite police forces to the city in the coming days.

According to an informal online poll conducted by Rio's O Globo newspaper, 88.9 percent of respondents favored the deployment of the armed forces to help patrol the city.

A Brazilian Web site that collects homicide reports from various media sources -- http://www.riobodycount.com.br-- reported Wednesday that 716 people have been killed in Rio since the beginning of February; the actual number is likely higher, because not all homicides are believed to be reported.

Rio's violence has generally been centered in the favelas, many of which are controlled by heavily armed drug gangs. Raids into the areas by both civil and military police make shootouts commonplace. Among the dead claimed by the violence so far this year, 39 have been military police officers.

Brazilian television news cameras captured Tuesday's shootout in Morro da Mineira and provided vivid evidence that the violence is not confined solely to the shantytowns. As gang members and police sprayed bullets, people ran for cover, huddling under bus stops.

According to military police, those wounded by stray bullets included a 22-year-old bystander, a 37-year-old vendor from a nearby market and a man who was hit while riding a bus.

Special correspondent Fred Alves in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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