More than 1000 police backed by the military and armoured vehicles have occupied the vast Mare favela near Rio’s international airport, 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, and have been carrying out a huge slum “pacification” program since 2008 aimed at making the city – which also hosts the 2016 Olympics – safer.
Before Sunday, Police Pacification Units (UPPs) had been installed in 174 Rio favelas home to about 600,000 people.
Early 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 neighbourhoods seen as havens for organised crime and home to about 130,000 people.
It is just a few kilometres 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 armoured 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 1180 officers were involved in the operation, and were backed by 14 armoured 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, the GloboNews chain said.
According to the intelligence services, drug traffickers who left Mare after the announcement on Monday of the imminent occupation could come back later, meaning authorities face a long-term battle to keep the volatile area under control.
After decades battling organised 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.
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.