RIO DE JANEIRO – Nearly 1,000 Brazilian soldiers encircled this city’s largest favela on Friday amid gunfights that forced schools and hospitals to close while causing massive traffic tie-ups.
The dispatch of the army to Rocinha, which is home to roughly 60,000 people, was authorized by President Michel Temer as a response to days of shootouts between rival gangs seeking to control the drug trade.
The troops, accompanied by 10 armed vehicles, arrived at the edge of Rocinha shortly before 4 pm and within 30 minutes they began to enter wooded areas in pursuit of gunmen.
Overlooking Rio’s famous beaches, Rocinha covers a hill that divides the upscale Sao Conrado and Gavea neighborhoods and bestrides the only avenue linking the city’s southern and western sections.
An intense gun-battle in Rocinha, where four people were fatally shot earlier this week, early Friday prompted authorities to shut down the avenue for the better part of five hours.
The strategic thoroughfare also happens to offer the only road access to the venue for Rock in Rio, Latin America’s largest music festival.
Event organizers put out a statement advising the 100,000 people with tickets for the Friday performances to leave their cars at home and use the Rio de Janeiro metro instead.
The mayhem spread to other Rio favelas on Friday after the firebombing of a bus as it traveled through Rocinha.
Thousands of students were sent home by schools in the affected neighborhoods and many merchants chose to pull their shutters down.
The governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Luiz Fernando Pezao, who requested the military intervention, said that the soldiers would remain in Rocinha to support police until the situation was brought under control.
“Will not retreat in Rocinha. This is the fifth day of operations. Yesterday we discovered a great quantity of guns and drugs,” Pezao said. “We are certain that the repercussion this operation had in other areas of the city is a reaction to the results we are achieving.”
The role of the military in Rocinha is to “free up the police so they can go up (the hill) and continue the confrontation with the criminals,” Defense Minister Raul Jungmann.
The soldiers surrounding Rocinha are part of the contingent of 10,000 authorized by Temer in July to backstop police in Rio, the minister said.
Rio de Janeiro state has suffered some 4,000 homicides this year, while 630 people have been killed by stray bullets from shootouts among criminals and cops.
The state government declared what amounts to bankruptcy in the summer of 2016 – just before the Rio Olympics – and the austerity policies adopted since then have been accompanied by increases in both poverty and violence.