Rio police aggressively track down gang leaders

RIO DE JANEIRO — Elite police units riding in military armored vehicles rumbled through a heavily fortified slum Thursday hunting for drug gang leaders blamed for five days of violence, even as dozens of armed youths fled to a neighboring shantytown.

The push into the Vila Cruzeiro shantytown left at least eight people dead and one police officer wounded, authorities said. It is part of a police campaign to clean up Rio's gang-ridden slums before the city hosts soccer's World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later.

Gang members have responded to the offensive against strongholds where they have held sway for decades by setting up roadblocks on major highways to rob motorists en masse, torching more than 40 cars and buses and shooting up police posts. Authorities say that when police arrive, gang members flee into nearby shantytowns.

The officers arrived in Vila Cruzeiro on Thursday under the cover of police helicopters and amid the rattle of gunfire despite the gang members' efforts to block access with burning vehicles.

As police entered, dozens of gangsters were seen fleeing down jungle-covered hills, across an area known as "the green hell," to a neighboring gang stronghold, the Alemao complex of shantytowns.

Today, the state police will have additional help from federal law enforcement to hold on to Vila Cruzeiro, Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame told reporters at a news conference.

Beltrame said the police were in Vila Cruzeiro "and we're not leaving."

Security officials said that while Brazil's navy lent the armored vehicles to police, the marine drivers by and large did not engage in any fighting. The personnel carriers are armed with high-caliber gun turrets, but there were no reports that the larger weapons were used inside the slum.

Businesses in the neighborhood shut down during the operation, and officials sent 12,000 students home from 10 schools and a day care center in the region, the city's education department said in a statement.