Rio Cops Kill 13 in Sweep Before Pan Am Games

At least 13 suspected drug traffickers have been killed in gun battles with Rio de Janeiro police. The violence deepened concerns about security for the Pan American Games, which get under way next month.

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Authorities in Rio de Janeiro say that at least 13 suspected drug traffickers were killed in a gun battle with police. It happened in a sprawling shantytown. Hundreds of police and special forces were deployed in a five-hour confrontations. Authorities say that they were attacking the city's most potent criminal elements. And this violence deepens concerns about security in the country that is going to host next month's Pan American Games.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY: It was an unusually bloody day even by Rio standards. Television reports of the scene captured mothers huddled in stairwells, weeping with their children as gunfire rang out around them. Authorities yesterday moved in to the densely populated favela known as the German Complex, while bandits set off fireworks to alert others of the presence of the police.

Suspects greased the steep streets of the slum with oil in a bid to stop the armored vehicles that ferried in the security forces. Wounded bystanders were rushed from the streets. In one scene, hysterical residents confronted police over the corpse the officers were bundling into a blanket.

Briefing reporters last night, Rio de Janeiro's state security chief Jose Mariano Beltrame called it a delicate operation and said that only criminal suspects were among the fatalities.

Mr. JOSE MARIANO BELTRAME (State Security Secretary, Rio de Janeiro): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I want to make it clear, he said, that the police operation is absolutely not a violent one. We do not go to these regions looking for or producing violence. We were met brutally with bullets and potent arms. That's when the security chief said the trauma happened. Exclusively, he said, because of confrontation.

The state security chief described the gun-ridden area as a bunker of violence that has been under police surveillance for nearly two months. He says that more than half of the city's criminal activity originates in the area. According to Chief Beltrame, drug traffickers have blocked the ability of the 60,000 residents of the poor, rundown region to carry on with their lives.

Writer and analyst Dionisio Proenza(ph) has worked with Rio's anti-crime commissions and says both criminals and police have endangered the city's slum dwellers.

Mr. DIONISIO PROENZA (Writer): Many innocents have died, and there's great suspicion that they died from police misused of force. And on some occasions, it's suspected that criminals deliberately killed people solely to reinforce their ability to resist rightful police action.

MCCARTHY: The violence is casting a pall over the upcoming Pan American Games. In two weeks, Rio will host more than 5,000 athletes and some 800,000 tourists. Officials had hoped to showcase the city's natural beauty, not its spiraling crime, and the FBI is here to advise on security. Dionisio Proenza says…

Mr. PROENZA: It is very difficult to argue that it shouldn't be an absolute priority.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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