Rio Police Promise War on Drug Gangs

By MICHAEL ASTOR
The Associated Press
Thursday, June 28, 2007; 6:03 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Police trained assault rifles on residents of a gang-infested shantytown as they went back to school and work Thursday, pledging a war on drug gangs after a raid that killed 19 suspected criminals.

More than 1,300 heavily armed officers exchanged gunfire with gangs for hours in one of Rio's most dangerous slums on Wednesday, and Rio state security secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame promised more police incursions to oust the gangs that rule over most of the city's 600 slums.

He said Thursday that the heavy show of force _ which wounded bystanders caught in the crossfire _ marked the end to an unofficial "silent nonaggression pact" between officers and drug gangs over turf in the slums.

The raid in Alemao, home to more than 160,000 people, "is only the first of many others we will carry out," Beltrame told CBN Radio.

Beltrame did not elaborate on the nonaggression pact, but the city has a long history of officials making deals with drug gangs that give the traffickers free reign in slums provided they do not cause trouble in Rio's affluent beach neighborhoods.

On Thursday, sporadic gunfire broke out in Alemao after gang members opened fire on an armored police car, and officers frisked residents as they entered and left the shantytown.

But businesses reopened and children started going back to school after spending the previous day huddling inside their homes to avoid the gunfire.

Marcelo Santos, 26, moaned in pain from his hospital bed as he described being shot in the arm and leg while heading to his girlfriend's home during some of the fiercest fighting. He said he did not know whether he was shot by police or traffickers.

"I heard a hail of bullets and spent the next four hours bleeding in a neighbor's house until the fighting let up and I could get to the hospital," Santos said.

The trouble in Alemao broke out after two police officers were killed on May 2. On and off skirmishes between authorities and criminals left killed and wounded dozens over the past two months, and Wednesday's combat pushed the death toll to 46.

In the raid, police seized dynamite, anti-aircraft guns, assault rifles and large quantities of cocaine and marijuana _ but acknowledged it could take much more time to restore order.

"There are still lots of arms in that complex," Rio Police Chief Gilberto Ribeiro said.

Police claimed all of the people who died in the operation were drug traffickers. But the prospect of more raids made slum community leaders nervous that innocent people could get hurt.

"For the police, everyone is a drug trafficker, especially after they've killed you," said community organizer Edmundo Santos Oliveira. "Then it's up to the family to try to prove their loved ones were innocent."


© 2007 The Associated Press