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War for Rio? Olympic city facing gang backlash

The drug gang leader jabs the muzzle of his 5.56-mm Sig Sauer assault rifle around as he talks.

Yes, Jogador says emphatically, Rio's drug gangs are feeling threatened by the biggest police push against them in the city's history, a Herculean effort to improve security before the 2016 Olympics. The heavily armed criminal gang he helps lead is being driven from long-held turf in the slums, leading to losses in cocaine and marijuana sales.

It's what the 25-year-old career criminal says next, with a low laugh and a nodding of his head, that strikes at the heart of fears in this seaside city: He says that Rio's gangs are preparing for a return to the city's most violent days.

"You take any animal and put it up against the wall," he says, eyes ablaze, pointing the tip of his Swiss-made weapon toward a whitewashed ledge pocked by bullets. "Its last option is what? To attack."

A radio attached to his black sports shorts begins squawking wildly. Police have captured a lookout on the edge of the western Rio slum his gang rules. Young men with rifles and semiautomatic pistols are scurrying about, preparing for yet another police invasion.

Jogador turns the radio down. It's hard to tell how much of what he says is bravado and how much is warning, but there is plenty of both.

"Rio de Janeiro is going to get really small," says Jogador, who agreed to talk on condition he be identified by a nickname police would not know. "Rio de Janeiro is going to tremble."

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Rio is seeing violent, chaotic days. Just as Jogador, who spoke to The Associated Press two weeks before the recent clashes, said it would be.

Armed men have set up roadblocks in key areas — a highway leading to the international airport, an avenue running by the state government's headquarters, quiet streets in wealthier neighborhoods — letting loose rifle fire, tossing grenades. More than 100 cars and buses stopped in the dragnets have been set on fire, usually after their occupants fled.

Police responded by invading more than 20 slums, engaging traffickers in massive shootouts, killing at least 35 people, mostly suspected drug gang members, and arresting more than 200.

Authorities now control one of the most fortified slums where traffickers long ruled with impunity, and have been trading gunfire with gangsters while preparing to invade another that many fear will ignite an even bloodier battle.

The scenes of urban warfare in Rio on the nightly news bring back memories of 2002, when drug gangs protesting the prison conditions of their incarcerated leaders shut down Rio, a city of 6 million people — twice the size of Chicago. They burned buses, sprayed government buildings with bullets and grenades, and sent foot soldiers out to warn businesses to close. Similar shutdowns went on for months.

Now the three major gangs are preparing for another fight, and according to Jogador, are ready to end their bloody rivalries and join forces against the police. Rio's top security official and governor acknowledge that the battle is heating up — and that the gangs seem to be unifying.

"These are classic acts of terror, an effort to create and diffuse a sense of insecurity throughout the city," said Paulo Storani, a security consultant who spent nearly 30 years on the police force and was a captain in an elite Rio unit sent in to clear slums. "The mass robberies, the burning of cars, these are just the beginning of a response by the drug gangs."

The reason, security analysts say, is economics. For two years, police have invaded the slums and installed 13 permanent posts — not much in a squalid sea of more than 1,000 shantytowns, but enough to make a point. The gangs are losing slums and the drug revenues they yield. The fear is that there is a tipping point when the gangs decide it costs less to fight the police than to give up the territory, and that this moment is at hand.

Since September, armed men have carried out scores of mass robberies of motorists. The recent episodes are much more frequent than in the past and of a different nature. Few of the cars have been stolen. Instead, they are torched as vivid forms of protest, or motorists are ordered to hand over their keys, stranding the vehicles and clogging traffic.

The gunmen then melt back into the city, leaving behind panic and chaos.

The tension is growing as police prepare to go into the largest slums that are the backbone of the gangs' operations. One, the Alemao complex, surrounds a road that leads to the international airport. On Saturday, it was surrounded by police after officers invaded the neighboring Vila Cruzeiro slum and drove armed gangsters from there to Alemao. The other, Rocinha, is on the other side of the city, a sprawling mass of shacks on a route that will connect the main venues of the 2016 Olympics with the rest of the city.

Both are densely packed, creating a human shield for the gang leaders. They are also havens for drug production and serve as lucrative distribution points.

"They are not going to simply leave these areas and hand them over to police," says Storani. "Losing them would be a huge blow to the infrastructure of the traffickers. There is going to be a fight — and heavy fighting at that."

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The crowd of 300 slum residents sits in white plastic chairs neatly aligned on a large concrete slab, chipped and faded blue paint on its surface marking the outlines of a soccer field.

They're staring at something they've never seen: a government official addressing them.

"We are here. Our presence here will remain. The police will no longer leave you. But the police alone cannot win this fight. We need your help."

Rio state Public Safety Director Jose Beltrame, in charge of the armed security forces, stares intently back at the crowd, speaking in a staccato cadence, trying to pierce the cloud of doubt.

"We can bring another reality here. That is not a political promise. We have already brought security and social services to other communities," he says.

It was midmorning on a rainy Saturday in early November and Beltrame, the architect of the police program to take over the slums, was standing in the Morro dos Macacos slum. He was there to celebrate the creation of his 13th police post in a slum, known as a pacification police unit, or UPP. This slum was taken three weeks earlier without a shot.

The crowd applauds after Beltrame speaks. Behind the claps, however, are worries.

"The devil lives inside this slum. They've got to end the misery, the poverty. Look at this place, full of filthiness, just a mess," says Henrique, a slum resident who only gives his first name for fear that the drug gangs will return. "I hope that God gives these men the strength to change things here, but I don't have much faith they will."

Antonio Carlos Costa, director of Rio de Paz, an anti-violence group, says the UPPs are by far the best development police have presented. But the big doubt, he says, is whether they can be sustained.

"You need more police, you need better-trained and better-paid police," he says. "There is no way they can pacify all the communities. If you push the traffickers out of one area, they naturally just flow to another."

Costa thinks Rio is at a moment of dramatic change.

"We could have one of the scariest scenarios imaginable, that the gangs declare an all-out war and we return to the levels of violence seen in the 1990s, the most violent period of Rio's history," says Costa. "But we also could have a way out, with the international pressure to improve security before the Olympics, which should bring more money in to combat crime."

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With the pistol held to his head, Antonio Freitas' first thoughts were for his two sons, ages 7 and 12, sitting in the back seat of his car playing Nintendo video games.

Armed men blocked off a quiet cobblestone road in his leafy neighborhood one evening in late October, descending from a slum to the "asphalt" — as the Rio outside of the shantytowns is known. Suddenly, Freitas was caught in one of the mass robberies that have hit Rio. It happened a block away from the state government's headquarters, Palacio Guanabara.

"I just kept thinking of the horror it would be if the thief stole my car with my two sons inside," he recalls. "I warned the boys to keep quiet because we were going to be assaulted."

A lifelong resident of Rio, Freitas, 59, says he watched the idyllic tropical city of his youth spiral into violence with economic crises in the 1970s and '80s and the arrival of a heavy cocaine trade that fuels gang wars to this day.

But the gunmen were not there to steal cars. Instead, they took the little cash that was on him and his car keys — and those of other victims on the street — so they could not get away, and their vehicles blocked the road.

Another car made its way down the winding, inclined street. Instead of getting caught in the trap, its driver punched it in reverse, tires squealing. The gun to Freitas' head was removed and the criminal ran after the car trying to escape, firing shots.

The gunmen made off — they were, after all, 100 yards from the state's seat of power.

Freitas says nothing was said about the UPPs, there were no political statements about police actions. But he has little doubt about a motive.

"The action," he says, "was terror on the asphalt."

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Back at the slum, Jogador offers no details on whether the recent mass robberies and burning of cars are being ordered by drug gang bosses. He also does not deny it.

"If they come attacking, we're going to find a way to make them pay," he says. "Every action has a reaction."

Beyond the threats, he offers up some can't-we-all-just-get-along suggestions, along with doomsday predictions if the UPPs continue.

"I think the World Cup would be a lot more peaceful, the Olympics would be a lot more peaceful, if they stopped invading our slums," he says. "If they come shooting in our community, where do we have to go? We're going to come over to their side and then things will get difficult for them."

But he also says he does not think the police will stop, and neither will the gangs.

"If they try to put a UPP here," he says, "there will be a war."

Jogador pulls his rifle strap over his head and laces it around his right shoulder. He walks to the street's edge, talks to other gang members. His hand is always on his weapon, watching and waiting for the police to arrive.

(This version CORRECTS caliber of Sig Sauer assault rifle to 5.56 milimeters instead of .556 caliber.)