RIO DE JANEIRO – Violence, looting and vandalism have rocked part of Rio de Janeiro after police launched an operation on Friday morning to retake commercial buildings which thousands of squatters had moved into just days before.
Fulfilling a court order to clear the premises, around 1,700 military police moved in at dawn to evict at least 5,000 people now living the disused complex of four buildings owned by Brazilian mobile phone company Oi S.A., located in the Engenho Novo district of Rio’s North Zone.
Although the new residents initially began leaving peacefully, clashes later broke out and parts of the premises were set on fire. Thick, black smoke could be seen billowing from the buildings and panicked residents started fleeing.
Criminals took advantage of the chaotic situation, vandalising and looting the surrounding area. Police said it was unclear whether the criminals were the evictees.
According to GloboNews, three banks and some 15 buses were damaged; four of the buses were set on fire. A further three vehicles were also torched, including a police car.
Some residents took to the streets to protest against the evictions, shouting: “We want houses.” Some burned tyres and hurled stones at police, who responded with rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas.
At least 13 residents (including three children) and nine police officers were hurt in the violence, according to officials, and some 25 people have been detained, including 21 for looting a local supermarket.
Claims by residents that three children were killed in the operation were not confirmed by police.
Military police will now reinforce the area throughout the weekend.
‘We want houses’
Local media say around 1,000 people moved into the 50,000m² complex on 30 March, which squatters went on to dub “the Telerj favela (slum)” after the buildings’ previous owners.
Police were following up on a court order issued last week to clear the premises, and a police statement Friday said 40 legal officials had accompanied the operation.
But residents had been negotiating with official parties, and were outraged at the sudden eviction:
“They told everyone to get out. It’s full of children. The building’s been disused for 20 years!” an unnamed resident was quoted by G1 news website as saying, estimating that 8,000 people were living in the complex.
Humberto Cairo, who was part of the legal team attempting to mediate negotiations between the squatters and the landowners, told Valor Econômico that “everything we had feared is happening and worse”.
Maria José Silva, representing the residents, said many people had left in a state of panic and abandoned their belongings inside: “They’re saying that there are [arms, drug] traffickers in there, but there are humble people who need somewhere to live.”
A bulldozer was sent in to tear down improvised shacks, dividers and other installations.
Rio mayor Eduardo Paes has defended the court order and police action, and was quoted by O Globo newspaper as saying that the squat was not a favela, but instead bore the hallmarks of an “organised movement” and “professional invasion.”
Residents are calling to be relocated into purpose-built low-cost housing, as has happened in other communities as part of Rio’s social inclusion programs.
The incident is the latest in a series of confrontations between police and underprivileged, lower-income residents, and comes just two months before the start of the World Cup, for which Rio is playing host to seven matches, including the final.
Police and federal troops have recently been reinforcing other slums in the city, including the vast Maré favela complex.
Written for Anadolu Agency | SÃO PAULO | 11 April 2014