Rio police occupy slum near airport

Brazilian police on Sunday occupied crime-infested slums near Rio de Janeiro's international airport and seaport as part of efforts to drive out drug traffickers ahead of the 2014 World Cup.

The operation, which began at 4:55 am local time (0755 GMT), involved more than 1,300 police and members of the military backed by mechanized units of the Brazilian navy, which entered the favelas of Caju and Barreira do Vasco and seized control of their narrow streets.

So far, authorities have not encountered any resistance from residents of the townships whose combined population has reached about 20,000. And they were quick to declare victory.

"The operation has been a success," military police Colonel Frederico Caldas told O Globo television. "This very important, strategic area was taken without firing a shot."

For years, the favelas have been a stronghold of drug-trafficking gangs that held sway over the area and terrorized the local population.

Now, the local residents have cautiously welcomed the operation that they hope will help restore law and order.

"I think this is all good," said a 77-year-old woman, who lives in Caju but remains reluctant to reveal her name for fear of retribution on the part of the criminals. "I hope now we will have more security," she told AFP.

According to police, their next target will be violence-plagued Mare, an area near the airport largely controlled by drug gangs and militia units.

The area, home to 75,000 people, is ringed by freeways, including one that provides access to Galeao international airport.

Rio's feared military police battalion BOPE are to occupy the zone until a specially-trained police force known as UPP can be deployed.

The operation in Caju was part of a government strategy designed to combat crime and reassert full control of the Rio de Janeiro metropolis ahead of the soccer World Cup of 2014 and the Olympic Games two years later.

In 2008, Rio authorities began cleaning up lawless favelas, or slums, one by one, hoping to finish the job before the big sporting events that are likely to bring to Rio millions of tourists.

So far, 30 UPPs, or Police Pacification Units, with more than 8,000 officers have been deployed and are protecting more than half of the two million people who live in local slums.

Authorities said their goal is to have 40 UPPs in place by 2014.

Violence has receded since police launched operations in the slums, including in Rocinha, Brazil's largest shantytown.

In the first half of 2012 the murder rate fell to 10.9 per 100,000 residents, far lower than the national average of 26 per 100,000.

In 2009, the murder rate in Rio was 36.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.