SAO PAULO – Dozens of armed drug gang members have been setting up roadblocks and robbing drivers en masse in recent days in the Rio de Janeiro area, prompting the firing of 19 police battalion leaders in the city that will host the 2016 Olympics.
Residents were yanked from their cars in the middle of the streets in about 10 such robberies in the past week, including three since Tuesday. Gunmen made off with vehicles and took some victims hostage as they battled police with weapons and grenades.
No serious injuries have been linked to the robberies so far, although Globo TV's website said Thursday that a 13-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire of a gunbattle during a police operation to recover a stolen vehicle in a shantytown. It was not known if he was killed by police or gang members.
It was not clear how many arrests were made in the roadblock robberies, or whether a single group was responsible.
A spokesman with Rio state's public safety department said authorities believe the violence is retaliation by gangs upset over Sunday's re-election of Gov. Sergio Cabral, who has aggressively tried to drive criminals from Rio's shantytowns ahead of the Olympics and the World Cup in 2014, when the final match will be held in Rio.
The spokesman said the 19 police commanders were replaced late Wednesday for failing to improve security.
He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with departmental policy that he not be named.
For more than a year, police have invaded slums where heavily armed drug gangs hold sway, driving them out and installing permanent police posts in what authorities call a pacification project.
Security has been a concern since Rio was selected last year to host South America's first games. Organizers promised the International Olympic Committee that violence would not be an issue.
The Rio 2016 committee declined to comment on the recent robberies.
O Globo newspaper said there have been 33 mass robberies including the roadblock heists in Rio this year, with a total of 145 people robbed and 37 vehicles stolen.
Also Thursday, a 67-year-old woman died and two people were injured in an unrelated shootout between police and gang members.
Elsewhere, gang members on a motorcycle threw a grenade at chasing police officers, causing minor injuries to two bystanders.