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“This action is a huge blow to the structure of drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro and against the second-largest drug faction,” Storani said. “Beyond that, it’s essential to have security in this area simply because of the huge number of people who circulate there.”

Law enforcement agents will remain in Rocinha for an undetermined time, said Alberto Pinheiro Neto, head of operations for the military police.

Officials are now calling on the shantytown’s residents to help law enforcement find drugs and weapons hidden in the community. The head of Rio’s civil police, Marta Rocha, made a special appeal to the “mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts” to collaborate with the peacekeeping effort.

“Women of Rocinha, give us this information, bring us the news that will allow us to sweep through this territory that belongs to the people of Rocinha,” she said. “The day is starting. There is no going back. I am sure the population will help.”

The invasion of Rocinha comes near the end of a watershed year in the fight against drug gangs. Rio’s program of installing permanent “police pacification units” in slums started in 2008.

The slums initially targeted were not among the most violent. But last November, gangs struck back with a weeklong spree of attacks, burning buses, robbing motorists on highways and spreading fear and chaos. At least 36 people died in the violence, mostly suspected drug traffickers fighting with police.

The surge of violence prodded police to invade the much-feared Alemao complex of slums on Rio’s north side, near a highway leading to the international airport. Police routed the gangsters and took control within hours, imbuing the city with a new confidence that its security woes might be overcome even though most gang leaders had escaped capture.

A year later, the operation in Rocinha comes after careful planning and at a time chosen by authorities.

Police officials openly announced when they planned to invade Rocinha. They’ve used that tactic before and say it’s led to fewer firefights during the incursions, with gang members either fleeing or simply laying down their weapons before police arrive. Up to 2,000 officers are expected to be involved.

In recent days, police set up roadblocks at Rocinha’s entrances to capture the slum’s fleeing drug kingpins.

The effort paid off Thursday, when police captured Antonio Bonfim Lopes, known as “Nem,” who was the most-wanted drug trafficker in Rio. He was found hiding in the trunk of a car. His top lieutenants were also captured in recent days.

Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa contributed to this report.