More than 1,000 police backed by the military and armored vehicles occupied the vast Mare favela near Rio de Janeiro’s international airport at dawn Sunday, just 74 days before the World Cup.
Brazilian authorities are stepping up efforts to quell violence in the city and have been carrying out a huge slum "pacification" program since 2008 aimed at making the city safer and more appealing ahead of the World Cup.
Prior to Sunday, Police Pacification Units had been installed in favelas home to some 1.5 million people. Authorities hoped the program would raise living standards and calm the nerves of neighbors and World Cup visitors.
But violence has rekindled in many of the “pacified” areas – armed gangs killed four officers in recent ambushes in Complexo do Alemao and regular firefights have resumed after a four-year peace in Pavao-Pavaozinho and Cantagalo, two slums on the hills overlooking Rio’s most popular beaches.
The surge in crime prompted President Dilma Rousseff last week to approve a plea from Rio’s governor for federal troops to reinforce state police.
On Sunday, police and troops entered Mare, a drug-trafficking stronghold considered one of the most dangerous places in the city. The cluster of 16 neighborhoods, home to around 130,000 people, is seen as a haven for organized crime.
It is just a few kilometers from Rio's international airport and a potential route for football fans flying in and out of the city, which will stage seven World Cup matches, including the July 13 final.
Rio's security secretariat said that a total of 1,180 officers were involved in the operation, backed by 14 armored vehicles and four helicopters. In the operation, police seized "large quantities of drugs and weapons" that were hidden near the Olympic Village and a public school, according to the GloboNews chain.
Officials have failed to achieve some goals ahead of the World Cup – including a bullet train to Sao Paulo and a bigger airport terminal – but some smaller promises like sewers and basic water services in the favelas, or poor neighborhoods, were also forgotten.
Last summer, mass protests broke out across Brazil over a 20 cent transport fee increase. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia demanding economic justice.
Though the protests began over the hike in public transport, demonstrators said they were calling for better transportation, services, infrastructure and an end to government corruption. Protesters were angry that billions of dollars in public funds were being spent to host the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Meanwhile, property in Sao Francisco was seized from 79 families by the city of Camaragibe in December to make room for an urban transit hub. A neighborhood on the edge of Camaragibe about 600 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Francisco sits on the path to a new stadium being built for the World Cup.
The evictions prompted protests; in December, about 200 Camaragibe residents demonstrated in the streets, burning tires and holding signs calling for justice.
Brazil has the world’s sixth-largest economy, yet most making minimum wage earn just over $300 per month and struggle with the country’s 6.5 percent annual inflation rate – making the 20-cent transport cost hike significant for many.