Twelve dead and helicopter downed as Rio de Janeiro drug gangs go to war
Host city of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics shaken by violence as
warlords battle for control of the cocaine trade.
Two weeks after Rio de Janeiro celebrated winning the 2016 Olympic Games,
the Brazilian city was tonight bracing itself for a further night of
violence after an intense gun battle erupted in one of the city’s favelas
and a police helicopter was shot down, killing two officers.
The violence, intense even by Rio’s standards, began in the Morro dos
Macacos, a hillside area in northern Rio. The shanty town, controlled by the
Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) drug faction, one of three
heavily-armed cocaine gangs that control many of Rio’s 1,000-odd slums, was
reportedly invaded in the early hours of Saturday morning by members of a
rival gang, the Red Command. Police say traffickers from the Red Command
were attempting to seize control of the local cocaine trade.
Deafening volleys of automatic gunfire were captured on amateur video,
filmed from apartment blocks surrounding the slum. One local newspaper
declared it a “War in Rio” on its website.
“We were terrified,” Cristina Soares, a 17-year-old resident, told the Rio
tabloid newspaper Extra as she fled the area yesterday. “The children were
so scared they wanted to leave the house in the middle of all the shooting.
Later on things are going to get even worse.”
Mario Vilson, another resident of the Morro dos Macacos, told the news
website Terra that he had been woken up by the sound of shooting. “This war
has been going on for 20 years and will never end,” he said. “It’s very sad.
I just don’t know when we will have peace.”
Hundreds of police officers descended on the area following the invasion. By
Saturday night the death toll, including the two dead police officers, stood
at 12 according to Rio’s security secretary José Mariano Beltrame. Five
other officers had been shot and two slum residents injured, police said.
Favela residents were gathering their belongings and fleeing their homes
while at least 10 buses were set on fire across town, causing close to £1m
in damage according to one company.
“I saw two bodies lying in the street, surrounded by people,” said Douglas
Engle, a photographer who was at the Morro dos Macacos. “Then a third body
was brought down from the slum by police, wrapped in a hammock. People were
standing around crying.”
In the most high-profile incident, the pilot of a military police helicopter
was shot in the leg as he flew over the favela and the helicopter exploded
in flames as it crash-landed on a nearby football pitch. Two of those on
board were killed. It was the first time a police helicopter had been shot
down in Rio.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said it was “inadmissible that Rio be confronted
by delinquents in this way” and threw his weight behind police attempts to
control the violence.
The head of the military police, Mario Sérgio Duarte, said the drug
traffickers would “be the victims of their own choices”. “We have lost two
professionals who dedicated themselves to the defence of the population. But
we will not be motivated by revenge,” he added.
Oderlei Santos, spokesman for Rio’s military police, said: “Our operations
will only cease when these criminals are captured, arrested or are killed in
Authorities cancelled all police leave and members of Rio’s civil police
gathered at the police HQ in central Rio this afternoon. They were expected
to occupy a number of favelas around the city. Tonight, military police were
seen entering at least one slum controlled by the Red Command in Rio’s
southern beach district.
The latest round of violence underlines the challenges local authorities
face as they attempt to improve security before the city hosts the 2014
World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Rio’s government has spent the past year
expelling drug gangs and vigilantes from four slums and setting up
“pacification” projects by which the slums are permanently occupied by
But the majority of the city’s favelas are still controlled by members of
three drug factions, which possess an increasingly sophisticated arsenal,
including anti-aircraft guns and automatic rifles, often sourced from
inventory intended for the Bolivian and Argentinian armies and smuggled into
Faced with an increasingly well-armed enemy, Rio’s police are also investing
heavily in military equipment. They now have a bulletproof helicopter, while
local journalists wear bulletproof vests when working in the slums. Each
year, Rio’s police kill around 1,000 people “resisting arrest”. Nearly 90
officers have been killed this year.
Santos promised that things would improve before the Olympics. “We have a
lot of time before the World Cup and the Olympics, and before then we will
certainly arrest a lot of criminals,” he said.