Rio police pledge war on drug gangs

Police trained assault rifles on residents of a gang-infested shantytown as they went back to school and work Thursday.

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 pledged 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 the Alemao slum, 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 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 hit by bullets in the arm and leg while heading to his girlfriend's home during some of the fiercest fighting. He did not know whether the bullets came from 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 dozens dead and injured over the past two months. 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. "New operations could take place with the intention of breaking up the gang and disarming them."

Police claimed all of the people who died in the operation were drug traffickers.

But the prospect of more police action 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."

Walter Fanganiello Maierovitch, a former judge who heads an independent security institute, said that authorities still have not taken control of Alemao after two months of fighting there.

Gangs must be fought by going after their finances, he said.

"These shows of force, actions of war, are all based on populism because people want to see military force," Maierovitch said. "But this is not the way to go, because organized crime just melts away and hides and then comes back another day."