- Associated Press - Monday, December 6, 2010

RIO DE JANEIRO | The drug-gang leader jabbed around the muzzle of his .556-caliber Sig Sauer assault rifle as he talked.

Yes, Jogador said emphatically, Rio’s drug gangs are feeling threatened by the biggest police push against them in the city’s history, a herculean effort to improve security before the 2016 Olympics.

The heavily armed criminal gang he helps lead is being driven from long-held turf in the slums, leading to losses in cocaine and marijuana sales.

What the 25-year-old career criminal said next, with a low laugh and a nodding of his head, struck at the heart of fears in this seaside city: He said Rio’s gangs are preparing for a return to the city’s most violent days.

“You take any animal and put it up against the wall,” he said, eyes ablaze, pointing the tip of his Swiss-made weapon toward a whitewashed ledge pocked by bullets. “Its last option is what? To attack.”

Members of the Pacifying Police Unit visit the Morro dos Macacos slum in Rio de Janeiro. A city crackdown on gang activity in the slums has spurred a violent backlash. (Associated Press)
Members of the Pacifying Police Unit visit the Morro dos Macacos slum ... more >

A radio attached to his black sports shorts began squawking wildly. Police had captured a lookout on the edge of the western Rio slum Jogador’s gang rules. Young men with rifles and semiautomatic pistols were scurrying about, preparing for yet another police invasion.

Jogador turned down the radio. It’s hard to tell how much of what he says is bravado and how much is warning, but there is plenty of both.

“Rio de Janeiro is going to get really small,” said Jogador, who agreed to talk on condition he be identified by a nickname police would not know. “Rio de Janeiro is going to tremble.”

Rio is seeing violent, chaotic days. Just as Jogador, who spoke to the Associated Press two weeks before the recent clashes, said it would.

Armed men have set up roadblocks in key areas — a highway leading to the international airport, an avenue running by the state government’s headquarters, quiet streets in wealthier neighborhoods — letting loose rifle fire, tossing grenades. More than 100 cars and buses stopped in the dragnets have been set on fire, usually after their occupants fled.

Police have responded by invading more than 20 slums, engaging traffickers in massive shootouts, killing at least 25 people, mostly suspected drug-gang members, and arresting more than 200.

Authorities now control one of the most fortified slums where traffickers long ruled with impunity, and they are preparing to invade another that many fear will ignite an even bloodier battle.

The scenes of urban warfare in Rio on the nightly news bring back memories of 2002, when drug gangs protesting the prison conditions of their incarcerated leaders shut down Rio, a city of 6 million people — twice the size of Chicago. They burned buses, sprayed government buildings with bullets and grenades, and sent out foot soldiers to warn businesses to close. Similar shutdowns went on for months.

Now the three major gangs are preparing for another fight and, according to Jogador, are ready to end their bloody rivalries and join forces against the police.

Rio’s top security official and governor acknowledge that the battle is heating up — and that the gangs seem to be unifying.

Story Continues →