RIO DE JANEIRO — Elite police units in borrowed navy tanks rumbled through a heavily fortified slum Thursday in an effort to apprehend drug gang leaders they blame for five days of widespread violence, even as scores of armed youth fled to a neighboring shantytown.
Authorities say that gang members who hide out in numerous shantytowns have erected roadblocks on major highways to rob motorists en masse, torched more than 40 cars and buses, and shot up police outposts — all to protest against a security program that has been pushing them from slums where they have held sway for decades.
The officers arrived in the Vila Cruzeiro shantytown under the cover of police helicopters and amid the rattle of high-caliber gunfire.
As police entered, scores of gangsters were seen fleeing down jungle-covered hills, across an area known as "the green hell," to a neighboring gang stronghold, the Alemao slum.
Businesses in the neighborhood shut down, and officials sent 12,000 students home from 10 schools and a day care center in the region, the city's education department said in a statement.
Thursday's push into Vila Cruzeiro and other shantytowns in the city left eight people dead and one police officer wounded, authorities said. Police arrested 11 men, and seized gallons of gasoline and sticks of dynamite.
Since late Sunday, authorities have arrested more than 150 suspects in police raids at nearly 30 shantytowns in the northern and western parts of Rio. At least 23 people have died, many of them suspected gang members, though police may not have accounted for all of those killed in Thursday's operation.
Getulio Vargas state hospital, located at the bottom of the hillside covered by the sprawling Vila Cruzeiro shantytown, took in 23 injured people in 24 hours, said Rio state Health Department spokeswoman Valeria Bravo.
The police raids are part of the government's effort to clean up the seaside city before it hosts the World Cup soccer final in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics.