Pubdate: Fri, 02 Dec 2005
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2005 Los Angeles Times
Author: Henry Chu, Staff Writer


Brazilian Officials Say A Bus Blaze That Killed Five People Was A 
Retaliatory Assault By Suspected Drug Traffickers. Some Fear More Violence.

RIO DE JANEIRO - A deadly arson attack this week on a bus full of 
passengers has shocked residents of a city already accustomed to 
rampant crime and raised fears of a surge in violence on the cusp of 
the busy tourist season.

Five people were killed and several others hurt after a gang of 
suspected drug traffickers flagged down a bus, doused the interior 
and those aboard with gasoline and set everything ablaze. Among the 
dead were an infant and her mother, whose charred body was discovered 
atop her daughter, an apparent attempt to shield her baby from the flames.

Brazilian authorities say that Tuesday night's attack was in 
retaliation to the recent police killing of an alleged drug runner 
from a nearby shantytown. Throughout the day, according to media 
reports, the local police station had been bombarded with phone calls 
from gang members vowing to wreak vengeance.

Cariocas, as residents of this popular travel destination are called, 
have become partially inured to the daily accounts of muggings, 
kidnappings and shootings that have marred Rio's reputation as 
Brazil's cidade maravilhosa, or "marvelous city" in Portuguese. But 
the brazenness and savagery of the arson attack, whose victims were 
innocent bystanders in the escalating conflict between drug 
traffickers and police, left many Cariocas shaken.

"Everything indicates that we are in a true civil war," a reader 
named Luiz Marcondes wrote to the newspaper O Globo, in a letter 
published in Thursday's editions. "When is it that government 
authorities will start to intervene?"

The assault on the bus occurred at the onset of high season for the 
tourism industry, one of Rio's biggest sources of revenue. Officials 
are eager for nothing to alarm or dissuade visitors between now and 
the close of Rio's famed Carnaval early in the new year. Authorities 
normally tighten security during this period, especially on the 
streets and beaches of the affluent South Zone, where well-known 
neighborhoods such as Copacabana and Ipanema are located.

The arson occurred in a poor district in the northern part of the 
city, wedged between several squalid hillside neighborhoods known as 
favelas. These precariously perched shantytowns, home to hundreds of 
thousands of people, have largely been abandoned by the state and are 
ruled by heavily armed drug kingpins.

In recent years, buses have become an increasingly favored target for 
drug traffickers and other criminals seeking to flaunt their defiance 
of authorities.

With a combined fleet of about 7,500 vehicles, Rio's 48 private bus 
companies provide the primary means of transport for the vast 
majority of Cariocas. An estimated 1.4 million passengers, out of a 
total population of 6 million, ride the buses daily, according to Rio 
Onibus, an umbrella group representing most of the bus lines.

"We have 40,000 people who work on the city's buses, and they're all 
scared," said Lelis Marcos Teixeira, the president of the 
association. "What outrages us most is that this was a chronicle of a 
death foretold. Why? Because there have already been 78 [assaults] this year."

Teixeira blamed the state government, which is in charge of public 
safety, for failing to prioritize bus security as an urgent need. He 
said that bus company owners had asked officials to map out where and 
how attacks had occurred so that the firms could take action, but 
nothing had as yet been done.

The companies also have requested that, after any crackdown or raid 
on drug traffickers in the favelas, more police patrols be assigned 
to the area in the days that follow to prevent reprisal attacks on buses.

Survivors reported that the bus was flagged down by four teenage 
girls working in collusion with as many as a dozen young thugs who 
then mounted the assault. After the attackers set the bus ablaze, one 
passenger managed to pry open a back door, allowing terrified 
victims, some of them on fire, to escape. The thugs stood to one 
side, watching the bus burn and hurling rocks at the windows.

On Nov. 3, a woman was killed when suspected drug traffickers armed 
with assault rifles opened fire on the bus in which she was riding on 
the outskirts of the city. In February 2004, three police officers 
were killed when gunmen ambushed their bus.

The danger aboard Rio's buses came to worldwide attention two years 
ago with the release of the documentary "Bus 174." The film recounted 
the hijacking of a bus in 2000, a hostage drama that unfolded live on 
national television and ended in a botched police operation in which 
both the hijacker and one of his hostages died.
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