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For the moment, at least, Brazil's security forces have the upper hand.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — More than 3,000 heavily-armed troops stormed Brazil’s largest slum on Sunday, expelling drug traffickers from the sprawling Rocinha shantytown that that for decades has been controlled by gang members.
The Sunday-morning operation — dubbed “Shock of Peace” by authorities — is part of a wider “pacification” project intended to wrest control of Rio’s slums, known as favelas, from rifle-toting gangsters in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
Over 20 favelas have so far been “pacified,” overrun and occupied by police to mixed success. But Rocinha — until recently ruled by an army of at least 200 gunmen, according to police — represented by far the greatest challenge to date.
Previous police incursions into Rocinha have resulted in fierce gun-battles and high body counts. But on Sunday, authorities claimed that not a single shot was fired.
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Faced with an unprecedented show of government force, those traffickers who had not already fled appeared to have melted into the rainforests that flank the hillside community. It was a sign that for now, at least, the traffickers finally fear Rio’s security forces.
“Thank God, not a single shot, just the noise of the helicopters,” a community leader, William de Oliveira wrote on his Twitter account.
Shortly after 4 a.m. local time, armored vehicles packed with special-forces operatives began plowing into the favela, as Huey and Squirrel helicopters crashed through the skies above this giant community, home to well over 100,000 residents according to most estimates. A white banner, hanging at one of the community’s entrance, read: “Peace with social justice.”
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At first police vehicles made slow progress up the favela’s steep inclines. Fleeing drug traffickers had set up improvised roadblocks made from motorcycles and concrete blocks, and poured oil on the main road that cuts through the slum to slow the invaders’ advance.
By around 7 a.m. local time, police authorities claimed they had taken full control of Rocinha and two other neighboring slums controlled by the same drug syndicate, the Friends of the Friends or ADA faction.
With black-clad police officers hoisting Brazilian flags above the favelas, Rio’s security secretary, Jose Mariano Beltrame, claimed the operation had helped free tens of thousands of favela residents from an “evil, parallel empire.”
“What we began today does not have a finish date,” he vowed.
As thousands of security forces swept through Rocinha’s back-alleys in search of suspects and tip-offs, they came across traces of a criminal underworld that had been hastily abandoned.
In one three-story building — until last week the home of Fish, a leading drug trafficker from the gang — they found a generously stocked bar filled with Finlandia Vodka, and Johnnie Walker Blue and Black Label whiskey.
Exhausted police officers, who had trekked kilometers across the slum to find the home, slouched into two sofas in the front-room, assault rifles cradled in their laps. Others helped themselves to fruit-juice in the kitchen. Beside the sink, a black-and-white mug paid tribute to the home’s former occupant. “Super husband!” it read.
Others police officers offered tours of the building’s upper-floors, which had been equipped with a rooftop swimming pool and gym, a children’s nursery and a neon-lit fish aquarium.
Three toothbrushes and a bottle of Paco Rabanne perfume had been left behind in the immaculately tiled bathroom. In contrast to the relative opulence of Fish’s home, several of the trafficker’s neighbors were living in flimsy wooden shacks, cobbled together from pieces of junk.
Elsewhere in Rocinha, officers located weapons and drugs left behind by the gangsters whose boss, 35-year-old Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, better known as Nem, was arrested late on Wednesday as he tried to flee the area hidden in a car trunk.
In Vidigal, a neighboring slum, officers unearthed a clandestine cemetery where those who crossed the traffickers were allegedly burned to death deep in the surrounding rainforest.
In Laboriaux, one of the highest neighborhoods in Rocinha, on the crest of the slum, special forces came across a stash of marijuana and a weapons cache, including assault rifles and anti-air-craft rounds.
“Seizing weapons and drugs is very important. But handing back dignity and freeing a population from the yoke of the rifle is also a big deal,” said Beltrame, the security secretary.
Martha Rocha, the head of Rio’s civil police, launched an appeal for residents to pass information onto authorities, although many remained nervous after decades living in silence for fear of retribution from the drug gang, exposed by the total lack of state protection in the favelas.
Many will need convincing that it is now safe to talk. But some saw it as at least one positive step.
“Walking around on the streets and not seeing rifles represents a victory,” said Luis Ricardo, a 25-year-old waiter who lives in the favela, to a local news website. “In one way or another, we were always subjected to whatever the traffickers wanted.”