Fri, Jun 22, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Stray bullets take heavy toll on mean streets of Rio


Relatives of Thiago Oliveira Paulino, 18, cry at his funeral in Rio de Janeiro in March. Paulino was killed by a stray bullet.


The toll from stray bullets that rain down on Rio from the city's steep hillside slums as police and drug gangs battle with automatic weapons has grown sharply, with one innocent bystander killed or wounded every day.

Businesses and schools in the line of fire have been shuttered. Thousands of children are staying home. Even air travel is affected -- domestic jet routes were diverted from Rio's downtown airport when shooting flared up in a slum near Copacabana beach that the planes had to fly over.

In the city's best neighborhoods, apartments facing the hillside slums can be worth 60 percent less than units in the same building that are less likely to be hit.

Such concerns have become more urgent as the city prepares to welcome thousands of athletes for the Pan American Games next month.

Authorities plan to deploy 15,000 police to provide security during the games.

For the first time, the government has acknowledged the problem and has begun to track the toll from stray bullets in quarterly reports. It found they killed or wounded 87 people during the first three months of this year.

One of the latest victims, Ailton Lopes Moreira, was shot in the chest on Sunday on his way to the supermarket. It's likely no one will ever know who killed the 53-year-old engineer.

Police believe the bullet was fired from over a kilometer away, from a shantytown where 47 days of open warfare between police and drug traffickers have killed 23 people and wounded at least 67.

"I thought it was a heart attack. ... It was only when the ambulance came that I discovered he had been shot," said the victim's wife, Lucimere Negrao, 45. "It happened so quickly."

While only 19 of the 4,539 people killed by guns last year in Rio were hit by stray bullets, nearly 10 percent of the 2,098 people wounded by firearms were unintentional victims, according to the State Security Institute.

Most killings happen on the poor north side, a drab urban sprawl that extends for kilometers behind the mountaintop Christ the Redeemer statue, which looks down over the city's richer neighborhoods and white sand beaches.

But given the city's striking urban geography, nowhere is safe from the bullets. Hilltop shantytowns known as favelas tower above the best neighborhoods, and gleaming condominium towers rise up in clear sight of poor slums controlled by heavily armed drug gangs. At night, the bullets' red tracers light up the sky.

Rio's police kill about 1,000 civilians a year, virtually all classified as acts of self-defense. And they have a strong defender in Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral, who insists on heavy weaponry to keep up the pressure until the gangs give up their territory.

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