1,000 police occupy vast favela in dawn operation
By Pierre Ausseill, AFP
March 31, 2014, 12:08 am TWN
Brazil---More than 1,000 police backed by the military and armored vehicles occupied the vast Mare favela near Rio's international airport at dawn Sunday, just 74 days before the World Cup.
Brazilian authorities are stepping up efforts to quell violence in Rio de Janeiro as the World Cup looms ever closer, and have been carrying out a huge slum "pacification" program since 2008 aimed at making the city — which also hosts the 2016 Olympics — safer.
Prior to Sunday, Police Pacification Units (UPPs) had been installed in 174 Rio favelas home to some 600,000 people.
On Sunday they took the initiative to enter Mare, a drug-trafficking stronghold and considered one of the most dangerous places in the city.
The Mare slum district is a cluster of 16 neighborhoods seen as havens for organized crime and home to around 130,000 people.
It is just a few kilometers from Rio's international airport and a potential through route for football fans flying in and out of the city, which will stage seven World Cup matches, including the July 13 final.
A squadron belonging to the feared Special Police Operations Battalion, along with a dozen armored vehicles, entered the notorious shanty town without facing resistance.
Police had their weapons trained on the rooftops, but apart from a few bars close to the entrance of Mare that remained open, the streets were empty and dark.
Rio's security secretariat said that a total of 1,180 officers were involved in the operation, backed by 14 armored vehicles and four helicopters.
In the operation, police seized "large quantities of drugs and weapons" that were hidden near the Olympic Village and a public school, said the GloboNews chain.
According to the intelligence services, drug traffickers who left Mare after the announcement Monday of the imminent occupation could come back later, meaning authorities face a long-term battle to keep the volatile area under firm control.
After decades battling organized crime in the favelas, the poor communities surrounding the city, authorities had hoped the 2008 slum "pacification" program had begun paying off, driving down crime.
But this year, renewed violence has claimed the lives of eight police officers — four of them in "pacified" districts.
Keeping a lid on crime has become key to Rio's bid to turn the city into an international showcase for the World Cup and the Olympics in 2016, the first Olympiad in South America.
The occupation of Mare by security forces will be similar to that carried out in 2010 in the Alemao network of favelas, home to about 300,000 people.
Alemao was occupied a week after 35 people had died in bloody clashes between police and drug dealers.
Rio state secretary for security affairs Jose Mariano Beltrame insisted last Monday that authorities "are not thinking about the World Cup so much as the citizens of Rio, of police gunned down in cowardly fashion" on the streets.
"Our response to the traffickers is to occupy more territory, to make them lose more territory" and show the state is stronger than the dealers.