RIO DE JANEIRO | More than 3,000 police and soldiers backed by armored personnel carriers raced into Brazil’s biggest slum before dawn Sunday, quickly gaining control of a shantytown ruled for decades by a heavily armed drug gang.
It was the most ambitious operation yet in an effort to increase security before Rio hosts the final matches of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Officials are counting on those events to signal Brazil’s arrival as a global economic, political and cultural power.
“We’re taking back this territory for the 100,000 citizens of Rocinha, people who have needed peace,” said Sergio Cabral, governor of Rio de Janeiro state.
The action in Rocinha is part of a campaign to drive the drug gangs out of the city’s slums, where the traffickers often rule unchallenged. The city of Rio de Janeiro has more than 1,000 shantytowns where about one-third of its 6 million people live.
Authorities said it took just 90 minutes to seize control of Rocinha. Police simultaneously overran the neighboring Vidigal slum, also previously dominated by the drug gang Friends of Friends.
Both slums sit between two of Rio’s richest neighborhoods, and Rocinha’s ramshackle shacks climb a mountainside covered in Atlantic rain forest. Police methodically cleared alleys and streets on their way up steep, winding roads.
Helicopters continued to pound the air above, crisscrossing the hill and flying low over the jungle surrounding the slum, as police hunted down suspects who may have fled into the forest. By midday, local outlets reported just one arrest, though that couldn’t be confirmed independently.
Rocinha’s location has made it one of the most lucrative and largest drug distribution points in the city.
“Rocinha is one of the most strategically important points for police to control in Rio de Janeiro,” said Paulo Storani, a security consultant and former captain in the elite BOPE police unit leading the invasion. “The pacification of Rocinha means that authorities have closed a security loop around the areas that will host most of the Olympic and World Cup activities.”
Some estimates say the Friends of Friends gang brings in more than $50 million in drug sales annually in Rocinha and Vidigal alone. Much of the drugs are sold to tourists staying in the posh beach neighborhoods of Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana and to middle- and upper-class Brazilians who live there.
Law enforcement agents will remain in Rocinha for an undetermined time, said Alberto Pinheiro Neto, head of operations for the military police.
Officials now are calling on the shantytown’s residents to help law enforcement find drugs and weapons hidden in the community.
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.