More than 2,000 Brazilian soldiers stormed into a Rio de Janeiro slum complex Saturday with armoured personnel carriers and helicopters in a bid to improve security two months before the start of the World Cup.
As dawn broke, the heavily armed soldiers entered the sprawling Mare shantytown — considered one of the Rio's most violent and dangerous — which has been ruled over by drug gangs for decades.
The occupation of Mare, which is controlled by two rival drug gangs and a militia made up of security personnel, began last week, when more than 1,000 police officers and marines entered the shantytown. No shots were fired during the first phase of Mare's takeover.
The complex of 15 "favela" slums covers an area of nearly 10 square kilometres in northern Rio, is strategically located along main road to the international airport and home to about 130,000 people.
The occupation is part of the government's "pacifying police force" strategy aimed at taking over some of Rio's more than 1,000 slums before Brazil plays host to the World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympics.
The 2,050 Army troops, 450 Marines and 200 police officers that entered the Mare slum complex early Saturday are expected to remain in Mare until the end of July, when they are to hand control over to the police, according to the Defense Ministry.
4 officers killed since raids began
Army Gen. Ronaldo Lundgren recently told reporters the troops could remain in the area for a longer period of time should the state governor and President Dilma Rousseff, who signed off on the use of the armed forces to occupy the slum, request it.
The troops will patrol and "have been authorized to frisk and arrest people," Lundgren was quoted as saying by an Internet portal of the Globo television network.
Security forces will eventually establish a permanent post in Mare. Police have installed 37 such posts under the pacification program, which was begun in 2008 and has so far brought policing to an estimated 1.5 million people.
In recent months, the program has come under fire from the drug trafficking gang kingpins who once ruled the slums, where police long feared to tread, entering only on occasional raids.
According to a spokesman for the pacifying force, four officers from the force have been killed since the beginning of the year in a series of attacks, some thought to have been ordered by imprisoned gang leaders bent on stopping the spread of the program. With each area police occupy, gangs lose valuable territory for the manufacture and sale of drugs.
The police presence has brought improvements in security, decreasing the kinds of shootouts that once ricocheted through many of the slums. But many residents complain that the police's tactics are heavy-handed.
More than 20 officers who patrolled in Rio's largest slum, Rocinha, are facing charges for the torture, disappearance and presumed death of a slum resident there during a police interrogation last year.
Additionally, residents say the state has been slow to follow up with education, health and social programs aimed at improving their lives.