Brazil's army sent to help quell shootouts in Rio favela

Marie HOSPITAL
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Brazilian soldiers are often deployed in the shanty towns to help Rio de Janeiro police. These solders were sent to help crack down on drug gangs at the Jacarezinho favela in August

Brazilian soldiers deployed Friday to help Rio de Janeiro police after heavily armed drug traffickers rampaged through the country's most heavily populated favela, spraying bullets in the built-up community.

Intense gunfire exchanges between police and criminals began early Friday inside the Rocinha favela, where approximately 70,000 people live in a teeming collection of small houses on steep hillsides overlooking wealthy western Rio.

Amateur footage broadcast on Globo television showed men with a variety of rifles and pistols firing volley after volley in a heavily built up area.

A bus was set on fire near a major road tunnel underneath the favela, and the main highway was temporarily shut down by police, causing traffic snarls on one of the city's main east-west arteries.

As the situation spun out of control, army General Mauro Sinott told journalists that he had agreed to deploy troops Friday in support of police, although not sending them directly into the favela.

"We will help to secure the region, control traffic and control airspace, with the goal of freeing up police units to do more specifically police work," he said.

Gunshots could be heard from inside Rocinha and black smoke rose from the upper section, AFP correspondents just outside the favela said.

Terrified locals refused to speak to reporters, although several described themselves as "hostages" of the violence. One woman said she'd not seen anything as bad in 43 years living there.

- Rival drug gangs -

Violence is common in Rocinha, where drug gangs control much of the favela and the few police who enter are on permanent alert.

However, the situation spun dramatically out of control on Sunday when members of a narco gang poured into the favela to try and push out rivals.

Footage taken by residents of groups of men with rifles moving unimpeded through the streets, in quasi-military fashion, shocked Rio residents.

That dismay deepened on Wednesday when Rio state Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao revealed that he had ordered police not to intervene.

Pezao said he did not want to risk a spillover of the violence as tens of thousands of people were using the highway below the favela to reach the Rock in Rio music festival. The festival was due to continue through the weekend.

Pezao asked the federal government for urgent help from the army in Rocinha and elsewhere in Rio, where security has declined steadily since last year's Olympic Games.

The rising crime rate and increasing inability of the security forces to reestablish control is also linked to Rio state's near bankruptcy.

A steep fall in oil prices, national recession and runaway corruption have created a perfect economic storm in the state, contributing to a budget hole that leaves public employees, including police, sometimes waiting months for salaries.

On Wednesday, former governor Sergio Cabral was sentenced to 45 years in prison for money laundering and leading a criminal organization. Cabral was in office during much of the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and Rio's hosting of the 2016 Olympics.