Rio authorities ask federal help in drug crackdown

At least 12 die in clashes

residents afraid to go out

April 15, 2004|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Hit by one of the worst confrontations in months between police and drug traffickers in this seaside city, local authorities appealed to the federal government and Brazilian army yesterday for help containing violence that has left at least 12 people dead and thousands cowering inside their homes.

Scores of state police continued to occupy Rocinha, Rio's largest shantytown, in a crackdown on rival drug-runners that began Friday. In an operation that resembled a military invasion, heavily armed officers swarmed in and helicopters swooped down upon the hillside slum to strike at two competing factions of the same gang battling for supremacy in the lucrative cocaine trade.

Several of those killed and wounded in the ensuing shootouts were residents caught in the crossfire. One of the dead was a well-known skateboarding star whom drug traffickers allegedly tortured and killed because they believed he had informed on them.

Thousands of children have stayed home from school over the past few days on the orders of parents too frightened to go to work or even to venture outside to buy food.

The secretary of security for Rio de Janeiro state, Anthony Garotinho, traveled to the national capital, Brasilia, yesterday to consult with federal Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos about sending in troops to restore calm and to prevent flare-ups once the operation is over.

On Tuesday, Garotinho had asked for 4,000 soldiers to reinforce police in Rocinha and other slums in Rio until the end of the year. If granted, the request would put troops on the streets again barely 14 months after they were called in to quash a wave of gang-related crime before the city's famed Carnaval celebrations.

But it was unclear whether the federal government would deploy troops this time, especially after their performance in Rio last year was widely criticized. Bastos said the armed forces were not "at the beck and call of state authorities" and circumstances for sending them in would have to be exceptional.

The showdown in Rocinha, home to 150,000 people, is somewhat unusual because it is one of the more placid slums - enough that tour operators run guided visits there - and because the warring drug dealers belong to factions within the Red Command rather than to rival gangs.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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