Pubdate: Mon, 29 Nov 2010
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A4
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Authors: Myrna Domit and Alexei Barrionuevo
Note: Myrna Domit reported from Rio de Janeiro, and Alexei 
Barrionuevo from Sao Paulo. Roberta Napolis contributed reporting 
from Rio de Janeiro.


RIO DE JANEIRO -- In a quick and decisive military sweep, Brazilian 
security forces seized control of this city's most notorious slum on 
Sunday, claiming victory in a weeklong battle against drug gangs that 
has claimed dozens of lives.

By early afternoon the military police had raised the flags of Brazil 
and Rio de Janeiro atop a building on the highest hill in the Alemao 
shantytown complex, providing a rare moment of catharsis and 
celebration in a decades-long battle to rid this city's violent slums 
of drug gangs.

An air of calm and relief swept through the neighborhood, as 
residents opened their windows and began walking the streets. Dozens 
of children ran from their houses in shorts and bikinis to plunge 
into a swimming pool that had belonged to a gang leader, even as the 
police searched for drugs one floor below.

"We knew about this but we were never allowed to come in," said one 
child, who identified himself as Alan, age 3, as he splashed about happily.

Residents congregated around televisions in bars and restaurants, 
cheering on the police as they would their favorite soccer teams, 
even as occasional gunfire peppered the sunny skies.

"Now the community is ours," Jovelino Ferreira, a 60-year-old pastor, 
said, his eyes filling with tears. "This time it will be different. 
We have to have faith. Many people have suffered here who didn't deserve to."

Drug gangs have stained the reputation of this seaside city and 
contributed heavily to giving it one of the highest murder rates in 
the world. For the past two years, the government has carried out an 
ambitious campaign to pacify the most violent slums and regain 
control of the city in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic 
Games. The police have since wrested more than three dozen 
communities from criminal gangs, installing special community police 
forces there.

As those communities were cleared, some gang members fled to Alemao, 
a violent, sprawling slum complex with some 100,000 residents that 
the city's police chief, Jose Mariano Beltrame, called "the heart of evil."

Last Sunday, the drug gangs unleashed a wave of attacks on city 
streets that authorities said was in retaliation for the pacification 
campaign. The battle was joined, and since then more than 42 people 
have been killed in urban fighting between drug gangs and security 
forces. The police have not said how many, if any, of their officers have died.

The authorities ordered what they said were hundreds of traffickers 
hiding in Alemao to "surrender with arms in the air by sunset on 
Friday." When the traffickers refused, more than 15 armored vehicles 
blocked some 80 entrances to the neighborhood, barring residents from 
returning to their homes.

At 8 a.m. Sunday, some 2,600 police officers and military personnel 
moved in with tanks and personnel carriers. The police said they 
confiscated 40 tons of marijuana, 50 assault rifles and 9 
antiaircraft guns. There were no confirmed reports of any deaths.

"Today we are assured of the state's victory and the power of the 
state," said Cmdr. Mario Sergio Duarte of the military police, who 
led the operation.

But questions remained about how effective the raid would be and how 
long the authorities could maintain control of Alemao.

The police said they detained 20 people on Sunday, but they had 
entered the slum with more than 100 arrest warrants to execute.

Residents said that many of the criminals had left days before the 
operation disguised as clerks in dress clothes and walking alongside 
women and children.

"They are all gone now, so we are not so scared," said Suelen de 
Oliveira, 21, a student.

It was also unclear how long the military and the police planned to 
stay, or how long they could.

Mr. Beltrame, Rio's security secretary and the architect of the 
pacification program, has previously said that he did not expect to 
have enough officers to occupy either Alemao or Rocinha, another 
violent slum overhanging the city's affluent South Zone, until next year.

At a news conference on Sunday evening, he said the police would 
continue to occupy Alemao but did not respond to questions about when 
or whether a pacification force would be installed there. "Let's take 
this step by step," he said.

Still, the nation has been captivated by the drama here like no other 
event since the World Cup last summer.

For much of last week, Brazilian television provided nearly 
round-the-clock coverage of the confrontations, and newspapers have 
been packed with pages of coverage every day. A news helicopter 
beamed images on Sunday of a Mass at the Christ the Redeemer statue, 
an iconic Rio symbol, where hundreds of residents and tourists prayed 
for the security forces.

Mr. Beltrame has said that the political will to fight back against 
the gangs was long overdue. For decades, a lack of day-to-day police 
presence in the slums allowed gangs to control them like city-states, 
deploying heavy weapons to protect their drug trafficking operations. 
Gang leaders have dispensed city services while patrolling the slums 
with rifles hanging off their backs.

Meanwhile, corrupt politicians and police officers took bribes and 
kickbacks to look the other way. Two of Mr. Beltrame's predecessors 
as police chief, as well as Rio's former governor, were convicted in 
August of charges including corruption and money laundering.

The citizens who rallied behind the security forces seemed to agree 
that enough was enough.

Sergio Cabral, the governor of Rio State, was resoundingly re-elected 
in October vowing to deepen the pacification program and to break the 
grip of the "parallel power" of the drug gangs.

But even as residents celebrated, Mr. Beltrame warned against 
overstating the victory.

"This is a battle within a bigger war," he said. "We won a battle, 
but we did not win the war yet. "The mission will continue."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake