Six dead as Brazilian soldiers swarm Rio slums in anti-drug assault

Residents walk past by Brazilian Army soldiers who patrol during an operation against drug dealers in the Alemao complex slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

At least five civilians and one soldier died in shootouts in northern Rio de Janeiro on Monday, the army said, as thousands of Brazilian soldiers swept into slums in pursuit of drug gangs, trapping terrified residents in their homes.

The army said the early-morning raids took place in the Alemão and Maré slums and the neighbourhood of Penha, an area home to more than half a million people and some of Rio’s most violent areas, which have been targeted in a divisive six-month federal security operation.

Initially, the army had reported eight people were killed.

“The operations are ongoing and there could be more deaths,” the army said in an email to Reuters.

Many people shut themselves inside their homes for fear of being shot if they went outside, the Globo TV website reported.

Separately, at least six suspected gangsters were killed on Monday near a bridge linking Rio and the neighbouring city of Niteroi, police said. Four people died in the shootout with police, while two more died in hospital.

The joint army and police operations, which the army said were intended to flush out drug dealers, involved 4,200 soldiers and 70 police officers, as well as armoured vehicles and aircraft.

The soldier who died on Monday was the first to be killed since the intervention began, the state security ministry said.

Just over six months ago, President Michel Temer announced emergency measures authorizing the army to take command of police forces in Rio de Janeiro state, where warring drug gangs and militias have triggered a sharp rise in violence.

Since the operation began, both murders and the number of people killed in police confrontations have risen, casting doubts on a strategy criticized for relying on military tactics, a lack of transparency and unclear goals.

Nearly 64,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2017, a record high, and the rise in violence has become a key issue ahead of presidential elections in October. Candidates across the political spectrum are trying to play up their crime-fighting credentials and appeal to an electorate fed up with a weak economy and endemic graft.