Brazil troops storm Rio slums to catch gang leaders

(AFP) – Thousands of Brazilian army troops raided Rio de Janeiro slums in a pre-dawn crackdown on crime gangs Saturday, leaving parts of the city looking like a war zone on the first anniversary of the opening of the Olympic Games.

Five favelas were targeted by police and 3,600 troops in a swoop starting at 4:00 am (0700 GMT), the Rio state security service said in a statement.

Their main goal was to stop gangs behind a surge in brazen robberies of commercial trucks, with arrest warrants issued for 40 people. Rio state authorities say there were 10,000 cases of cargo theft last year.

However, the unusually aggressive operation also follows wider concerns that nearly bankrupt post-Olympic Rio is spinning out of control. The troops in action were part of 8,500 deployed to the city last month in a tacit acknowledgement that cash-strapped police have lost the ability to cope.

Scores of heavily armed soldiers in camouflage, rows of jeeps and armored personnel carriers could be seen ringing Lins favela, one of the many little-regulated, and often gang-plagued communities of working class Brazilians that rise on the city’s forest-clad hills.

Troops stood guard with fingers on the triggers of assault rifles, while units of soldiers and SWAT police roamed the streets, pointing their weapons out of car windows.

Everyone entering and leaving the favela was subjected to an identity check and search, with men required to lift their shirts. One man was questioned at length about a scar on his stomach and another man’s bag was searched only to find he was carrying a large Bible.

Favela residents said they had woken to shooting when the troops moved in and that the operation made them feel no safer.

“There’s an atmosphere of tension and fear,” said Vanuza Barroso da Silva, 23, who was going to her job at a supermarket. “People can hardly get to work.”

“They treat us as if we’re trash,” her father Roberto, 46, said angrily of the security forces.

Officials said the other favelas targeted were Camarista Meier, Morros de Sao Joao and Engenho Novo in the north and Covanca in the west.

“The armed forces are responsible for the perimeters in some of these regions and based at strategic points,” the state security service said. “Some roads are blocked and the airspace is restricted to civilian flights over the sectors where the armed forces are operating.”

Rio’s airports, however, were not affected.

  • ‘They abandoned us’ –

The crackdown came exactly a year after President Michel Temer opened the Olympics in a lavish ceremony at the Maracana football stadium, which is close to Lins favela.

Rio was the first South American city to host the Games and although the event passed off smoothly, a mixture of corruption scandals, near collapse in the state budget and crime has combined into a serious hangover for what should be one of Brazil’s richest regions.

In the first half of this year Rio tallied 3,457 homicides, the highest level of violence since 2009 and 15 percent more than during the same period in 2016.

People are killed daily in shootouts between rival gangs competing for control of the favelas or from police action. The shootings, often involving high-powered rifles, also lead to numerous deaths and injuries from stray bullets.

Since the beginning of the year 93 police officers have also been killed in Rio state.

Favela residents fear that Saturday’s show of force will be just one more in a long series of dramatic, but ultimately futile raids in neighborhoods ravaged by poverty, government neglect and deeply rooted gangs.

“You can hardly go out for a beer in northern Rio,” said Marta, 40, who like many residents was afraid to give her full name.

Asked whether she feared the gangs or the authorities more, she shrugged. “In either case it’s a minority that has weapons and are strongest,” she said.

Barroso da Silva scoffed at the Rio authorities’ vows of tough action on insecurity.

“They abandoned us,” she said.