Hundreds of police and soldiers have surrounded one of Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous slums after the end of a sunset deadline to drug gang members trapped inside.
But a police battalion commander said there was “zero” chance of a night-time assault to take on the estimated 600 gang members.
In a week of widespread violence blamed on the drug gangs, authorities took control of Vila Cruzeiro, a slum once thought virtually impenetrable, on Thursday.
More than 200 armed gang members fled that offensive and ran to the nearby Alemao complex of a dozen slums that are home to at least 85,000 people, followed by security forces on Friday. Police and troops manned positions outside the complex, sheltering behind armoured vehicles and exchanging intermittent, heavy gunfire with the gang members at many of the 44 entrances to the slum, its shacks packed along steep hills.
Many residents of Alemao could be seen streaming down the narrow alleyways on Saturday carrying their belongings – chairs, washing machines, bags of clothing – hoping to avoid being caught in the crossfire of the looming invasion.
Police spokesman Henrique Lima Castro Saraiva said the deadline for the gang members to surrender was “when the sun sets”.
“We want them to turn themselves in peacefully,” he said. “We do not want a bloodbath, but if they call us to war we will respond with force.”
He said the gunmen would be no match for security forces in a pitched battle, saying they were “exhausted, hungry, thirsty, stressed out” and had not been able to bring in more ammunition. He also said soldiers and police were trained and equipped to fight at night.
But police battalion commander Waldir Pires said of a night assault: “The probability of that being done is zero.” He did not rule out, however, smaller night incursions into the slum.
It was not clear how many gang members turned themselves over to police, though by mid-afternoon yesterday 16 men had accepted the police offer, one of them allegedly the right-hand man to the leader of Alemao’s drug traffickers, said Allan Turnowski, the chief of the police investigative branch. Two other men were shot and arrested as they tried to escape and six wives or girlfriends of traffickers also had been arrested.