By Lindsay Spratt, Sub Editor
RIO DE JANEIRO – Two weeks after Rio de Janeiro made international headlines for its Olympic win, the city was back on front pages worldwide this weekend after an outbreak of violence left fifteen dead and saw a police helicopter shot down from the sky.
The violence began in the early hours of Saturday morning in the favela known as Morro dos Macacos in the North Zone of the city and near the neighborhoods of Vila Isabel and Tijuca. At around 2AM, drug traffickers from neighboring Morro São João entered favela Morro dos Macacos in an attempt to control its drug market, operated by a rival faction. A shoot-out between traffickers ensued and had residents crouching in their homes or fleeing from the favela.
The gun battle continued into the morning and left a total of twelve dead, including two police officers whose helicopter was shot down by the traffickers. Of the six officers on board, another died on Monday in hospital and the remaining two were hospitalized for burns treatment. Targeted by the drug traffickers’ sustained gunfire, the helicopter began to burn mid-air, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in a football field in Vila Olímpica de Sampaio to prevent injuring innocent bystanders or damaging housing.
It was the image of the burning helicopter which accompanied national and international headlines as British newspapers The Guardian and The Times referred to Rio as “Olympic City” in their headlines. The LA Times and The New York Times both referenced the fact that the violence came just two weeks after Rio’s election as host city for the event.
Television footage and newspaper images showed the helicopter plummeting to the ground as flames burst from its rear. Eye-witnesses say it exploded immediately on impact. The police later confirmed that this was the first time that a police helicopter had been brought down by gunfire.
Violence continued to escalate throughout Saturday when the drug traffickers responded to police intervention by setting fire to a total of ten buses and vehicles in the surrounding neighborhoods. According to Rio Ônibus (Rio Bus), the total cost of damage is estimated at R$2.5 Million.
Police leave was then suspended to bring reinforcements to the scene and gunfire between traffickers and the police continued. The death toll rose early Sunday morning in Morro dos Macacos as three innocent men were killed by drug traffickers as they arrived home from a nightclub. The victims were cousins.
By Sunday afternoon, it appeared that calm had returned to the area. Roads which had been closed off, such as the Avenida Marechal Rondon which provides access to the center of the city, were re-opened.
The police operation to find the drug traffickers involved continued to intensify, and police presence in Rio now stands at approximately 4,500 officers. Officers are searching for drug-traffickers they believe to be hidden in the forest around Morro dos Macacos and Morro São João and are patroling other areas of the city to maintain the peace.
The police have come under attack from the media since the incidents for not having responded quickly enough to the drug traffickers’ planned invasion of Morro dos Macacos. O Globo claims that security services intercepted traffickers’ telephone calls detailing the invasion as early as Friday afternoon, but that no action was taken.
A row has also since broken out between the state and federal governments with Public Security Secretary, José Beltrame, complaining that Rio police are overworked and carry out duties which are the federal government’s responsibility.
In response to national and international pressure on Rio to improve its security for the forthcoming 2014 World Cup games and 2016 Olympics, Justice Minister Tarso Genro has defended Rio’s ability to control violence.
“In choosing the city, they [the Olympic Committee] already knew about the work that’s being carried out and will continue in the area of [crime] prevention,” he told state-run Agência Brasil news agency.