RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Heavily armed drug gangs unleashed a wave of attacks on police stations and public roadways early yesterday, and at least 18 people were killed in the confrontations.
Seven victims died in a single incident, a pre-dawn assault on an interstate bus bound for Sao Paulo. Survivors said that about eight armed men stopped and boarded the bus, robbed those aboard and then set fire to the vehicle before the 28 passengers could get off.
At least eight police stations and street posts were also reported to have been attacked by gangs armed with grenades and machine guns. The dead in those episodes included not only criminals and police officers involved in the shootouts, but also street vendors, pedestrians and ordinary citizens filing complaints at police stations.
Confrontations between police and gangs continued throughout the day. Police squads sent into at least a dozen of the squatter slums in the hills overlooking the city met with armed resistance, and a shootout that disrupted automobile traffic on a main street in a working-class neighborhood was also reported.
The attacks coincided with the start of the summer tourist season, an important source of income. The mayor of this city of 5.5 million, Cesar Maia, promised that the violence would not interfere with the famous New Year's celebration and fireworks display on Copacabana beach. But he did acknowledge that police units would need to be reinforced and also said he would welcome the deployment of army troops on key roadways. Brazilian news organizations said the wave of violence was meant as a warning to the new governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral. Elected in October after a hard-hitting campaign in which crime and public insecurity were the principal issues, Cabral takes office Monday.
"We're going through a change of government," including a new team that will be in charge of prisons, Roberto Precioso, the secretary of public security for the state of Rio de Janeiro, told reporters. Imprisoned gang leaders are "creating pressure in order to negotiate concessions and privileges," he said. "They are afraid of a tougher disciplinary regimen, which they want to avoid at all costs."
But Maia and other officials said that the gangs were also reacting to the presence of private "militias" in the squatter slums that are their stronghold. These militias are composed largely of off-duty police officers, who are said to be demanding payment from slum residents in return for killing or expelling gang kingpins, thus ignoring the legal constraints required when they are in uniform.
Such militias "are highly pernicious to public administration," the state director of prisons, Asterio Pereira dos Santos, complained at a news conference. He added: "The militias take control of what belonged to the traffickers, and so something heretofore unthinkable is happening: Criminal factions are uniting to confront the militias."
The latest round of attacks underscored the growing problem of urban lawlessness in Brazil, which also emerged as an important issue in the October presidential election. Since May, three waves of attacks by criminal gangs in Sao Paulo, the country's largest city, have left more than 200 people dead and resulted in the destruction of more than 350 buses, banks and police stations.