Death Toll Rises to 19 in Gang-Related Violence in Brazil

The death toll in Rio de Janeiro's recent gang-related street violence rose to 19 Saturday after a man severely burned in a bus torched by criminals two days earlier died in a hospital, officials said.

Police cracking down on slum-based gangs also killed five suspected gang members in a nearly two-hour pre-dawn shootout in a poor neighborhood, Globo TV reported.

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Also Saturday, criminals sprayed a police station and a shopping center with gunfire in the early morning darkness, injuring one bystander, the Web site of the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper reported.

In another neighborhood, armed men raided a police station and stole guns, but no injuries were reported. Police conducted several raids in slums, seizing homemade bombs, Molotov cocktails, guns and a grenade.

Most of the violence happened in poor areas of Rio and appeared to have no effect on tourism in chic beach neighborhoods as the city filled with Brazilian and international visitors preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve on Rio's famed Copacabana Beach.

It was not immediately clear whether the shootout in which the five suspected gang members died was related to the initial gang attacks on Thursday. Rio police spokesmen did not return repeated telephone messages seeking comment.

The 41-year-old Brazilian man who died in the hospital had burns over 80 percent of his body, said Sandra Barbosa, an administrator at the Pedro Segundo Hospital.

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Seven other people were burned to death on the interstate bus torched by gang members who also opened fire on police stations and posts around Rio de Janeiro early Thursday. Two police officers, two civilian bystanders and seven alleged gang members also were killed in the outbreak.

The human rights group Amnesty International condemned the gang attacks, saying they were an "alarm call" to Rio's incoming state and federal governments that assume power on Jan. 1.

The London-based group said the attacks highlighted the government's inability to address the rising violence that has made the city one of the most violent in the world.

"Early reports attribute these attacks as a response to the rise of 'militias,' reportedly made up of active or former police officers," Amnesty campaigner Tim Cahill said in an e-mailed statement.

News reports and some authorities said the attacks were a response by the city's heavily armed drug gangs to increased pressure from the militias in recent months. Most of the gangs are based in slums called "favelas."

Cahill said that the militias "according to official reports, and extensive newspaper coverage, have filled the vacuum left by the state expelling drug factions from favelas and imposing their own form of law, reportedly on the imposition of violence and extortion."

But the head of Rio's Public Safety Department, Roberto Precioso insisted the attacks were ordered by jailed gang leaders as a show of force before the Jan. 1 inauguration of the new state governor, Sergio Cabral.

Police have beefed up forces in shantytowns and authorities, trying to reassure a jittery population that the city's internationally famed New Year's Eve celebrations would be peaceful.

Police General Commander Hudson Aguiar said 20,734 officers would patrol the city during the celebrations — a 20 percent increase over the year before. He said police had moved into 10 of the city's most notorious shantytowns, which they rarely enter, to maintain calm.

Some 2 million people are expected to crowd Copacabana Beach on Sunday night to watch fireworks and musical acts that will ring in the new year. About half a million of the revelers will be tourists.

Ronnie Sandoval, a Brazilian who has lived in New York City for a decade, said he was initially scared about the impact of the attacks on his trip to Rio but calmed down after arriving.

"I was a little freaked out at first when it happened, but now I feel totally safe in this area," Sandoval said as he walked to Ipanema beach with two American friends toting beach chairs.

In Brazil, many organized crime gangs operate from prisons, where they communicate by cell phone with their "soldiers" on the outside to control street crime, meting out punishment to those who do not obey them after they are jailed.

In May, similar attacks by an organized crime group in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, killed nearly 200 people, including some 40 police officers and dozens of alleged gang members.