The increasing boldness and strength of criminal gangs here in Brazil's showcase city is sowing alarm and impatience among the residents, who complain that political rivalries and bickering between the federal and local governments are blocking an effective response.
Heavily armed drug trafficking groups have been a serious problem for years in the squatter slums that offer both a haven and a source of recruits. But in the past month the gangs have been attacking government buildings, shopping centers, hotels, buses and even highways from the airport, virtually unchallenged, apparently in direct defiance of government authority.
"This city is immersed in an urban guerrilla war, promoted by armed and organized terrorist groups," the Brazilian Federal Police superintendent here, Marcelo Itagiba, warned recently.
"They are ready to confront the reaction that is going to be coming from the state," he said.
After a bus carrying 20 police officers was attacked last month because a drug lord objected to its presence in territory he controlled, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Rosinha Matheus, finally acted. She fired the state public security secretary and replaced him with "the one who is most important to me, my husband," Anthony Garotinho, the former governor.
For Garotinho, a politician of national stature who is already thinking about a second run for president in 2006, the job has its risks. As the news magazine Isto E described the situation, "Either Garotinho does away with the bandits or the bandits do away with Garotinho."
Garotinho, 43, was elected governor of the state in 1998 and resigned to run in the presidential election last fall. In the first round of voting, he finished third among the four principal candidates, with 15 million votes, and helped Matheus, a political novice, to get elected state governor. Then he helped Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to win more than 80 percent of the vote here in the runoff.
But after da Silva took office in January, Garotinho's camp was largely passed over for Cabinet and other government posts, and he and his wife have sniped at da Silva since then. One result has been a notable lack of trust between the governments and of coordination in combating the crime wave.
"Even the walls of police stations know that representatives of the federal government and the state authorities aren't speaking the same language," the columnist Helena Chagas wrote last month in the daily newspaper O Globo. "In the meantime, the level of audacity of organized crime, which readily senses this butting of heads, rises daily."
In February, just before Carnival, Matheus requested army units to patrol the streets and challenge the drug gangs. Local news reports said she wanted troops to remain indefinitely, but the federal government refused when she would not agree to a series of policy changes.
Since then, the Brazilian press has been filled with reports that the national authorities in the capital, Brasilia, are considering a direct federal intervention in the state government.
The Brazilian constitution permits such a step under certain circumstances, but there would be some strong opposition and, under the law, it would freeze a proposed nationwide tax and social security reform plan.
Police and intelligence officials say that much of the violence is the work of the country's most notorious drug trafficker, Luiz Fernando da Costa, nicknamed Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or "Little Freddy Seashore."