By Santi Carneri.


It took 10 minutes for a large group of marines and elite Rio de Janeiro state police on Sunday to breach the fiery barricades and large stones placed by drug traffickers who had controlled this city's most dangerous "favela" or shantytown, and the operation was carried out without any clashes with the armed gangs and thus without any injuries or worse.

Just like in a country at war, a dozen military tanks and a contingent of more than 1,500 security personnel armed with assault rifles waited on Sunday morning for the order to invade the neighborhoods in one of Rio's most drug-infested areas.

Shortly before dawn, the black uniforms of the members of the Militarized Police's BOPE special operations battalion and navy riflemen with weapons at the ready began moving through the streets and alleyways of Manguinhos, Jacarezinho, Mandela and Varginha, all of which have become drug distribution and consumption centers.

The adjacent shantytowns in northern Rio de Janeiro had also become the bastion of the Comando Vermelho criminal group after the security forces' occupation two years ago of the Complexo do Alemao, a collection of nearby neighborhoods that for decades was that organization's main refuge.

With helicopters constantly flying overhead to support the operation, the BOPE soldiers moved into a neighborhood where the residents, knowing of the arrival of the security forces, stayed off the streets and inside their homes.

Virtually empty streets, populated only by a few crack addicts wandering aimlessly, were illuminated by the bonfires set by the criminals to make it more difficult for the authorities to get into the zone.

The state had virtually abandoned the area where 71,000 people live, allowing it to become dominated by the drug gangs.

Streets covered with mud and trash, pigs, vultures, chickens and wild dogs greeted the soldiers and police as they established themselves in the neighborhoods that are a far cry from the idyllic tourist beaches for which Rio is known.

Ramshackle houses, walls with huge holes, corrugated iron roofs that had collapsed and anti-police graffiti were everywhere as the BOPE personnel moved in.

The joint military-police force on Sunday encountered no resistance from the criminals who, up to now, had ruled the several favelas according to their own law.

A few gunshots were heard at the very beginning of the incursion, but they seem to have been warning shots fired by lookouts for the drug gangs to confirm the arrival of the police, which had been announced three days ago by the government.

As dawn broke, just one small bar dared to open its doors to provide coffee for a few residents who dared to venture out of their homes.

These favelas lack public infrastructure despite being bordered by Avenida Brasil, the Linea Amarilla and Avenida Suburbana, three of the city's main thoroughfares that lead to strategic spots like downtown and the international airport.

Police arrested 51 suspected drug traffickers in the three days prior to their occupation of the zone on Sunday, but they encountered no resistance or gunfire, Rio de Janeiro Public Safety Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame said.

"We made 51 arrests before the occupation. I have no doubt that if we enter without any resistance and find no gunmen or weapons in the occupied territory it was because the (criminal) organization was already weakened," Beltrame said at a press conference. EFE