Brazil: At Least 13 Killed as Soldiers, Police Swarm Rio de Janeiro Slums in Anti-Drug War
13 Killed as Soldiers, Police Swarm Rio de Janeiro Slums in Anti-Drug War (Representational Image)

Rio De Janeiro, Aug 21: Rio de Janeiro's drug war hit a bloody crescendo when at least 11 suspected criminals and two soldiers were reported killed in a huge military sweep through impoverished favelas and during a rush-hour police car chase. The military command heading security in Brazil's second biggest city said the two troops killed yesterday were the first lost since conservative President Michel Temer sent them in to protect Rio. The military command said 4,200 soldiers, backed by armoured vehicles and aircraft, entered the Penha neighbourhood and the Alemao and Mare favela complexes -- poor, densely populated swaths of city in large part run by heavily armed drug traffickers. Only 70 police officers were said to be involved, suggesting a turnaround from previous operations into the dangerous favelas where police have taken the lead and soldiers provided backup.

According to the Rio police force, 948 pounds (430 kg) of drugs were seized in the Mare, a far bigger amount than usual in such operations, which often end with few concrete results. Troops removed roadblocks erected by drug gangs, followed up on tipoffs against suspected traffickers, and checked vehicles and residents, the military said in a statement. In addition, "troops distributed leaflets asking for cooperation from the population," it said. The military said the incursion brought "positive effects" to some 550,000 residents. However, human rights activists worried that the deaths and the overwhelming role of soldiers, as opposed to police, signalled a concerning development in Rio's unending crime wars.

"We think this is very serious. If there is confirmation that the dead were executed by officers of the armed forces, it would be a troubling change," said Silvia Ramos, from the Observatory of the Intervention, which monitors the security forces in Rio. "The armed forces cannot enter this logic of useless confrontations and unacceptable killings that are the hallmark of the Rio police." In a separate incident in the Rio suburb of Niteroi, six suspected armed criminals were shot dead by police after a rush-hour car chase that briefly caused traffic snarls near one of Rio's main bridges. Police said in a statement that "four died on the spot and two died in hospital, and three were taken prisoner." Four assault rifles, four pistols, four grenades and seven radios were seized from two cars, police said.

A commuter bus carrying 38 people was caught in the crossfire during the shootout and hit by 14 bullets, although just one passenger was slightly injured, Globo news site reported. Rio de Janeiro hosted the Olympics two years ago, winning widespread praise for a smoothly run games. However, corruption, budget problems and spiralling crime have cast a shadow over a city that has long veered between the extremes of joyful carnivals or beach life and shocking violence. Six months ago, Brazil's military took over all security in Rio, following the government's decision that the local police are incapable of combatting the well-armed drug gangs. While police still perform all their normal duties, their top commanders are now military officers.

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