RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Police captured Rio de Janeiro’s most-wanted drug trafficker on Thursday as they prepared to occupy the Brazilian city’s largest slum, a vital step in preparations to host the Olympic Games in 2016.
Antonio Bonfim Lopes, the alleged drug lord of the teeming Rocinha slum, was captured in bizarre circumstances when police found him in the trunk of a luxury car of a man who claimed to be a senior diplomat from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Television images showed the fresh-faced suspect known as “Nem” sitting in the trunk of a police car and looking close to tears after his arrest.
“It’s a historic moment in the fight against drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro,” said Jose Mariano Beltrame, the state security secretary who is leading Rio’s push to crack down on organized crime and police corruption.
In a sign that the corrupt links between police and drug gangs remain a serious problem, three police officers and two former officers were arrested along with several traffickers who they were helping to flee the Rocinha “favela,” as Brazilian shantytowns are known.
Police said they planned to occupy Rocinha, one of Latin America’s most infamous slums, in the coming days and that gang members were trying to escape any way they could.
The sprawling hillside community, home to more than 100,000 people and close to some of Rio’s most exclusive areas and best beaches, is believed to be the main drug distribution point in Brazil’s second-largest city.
It is the next and most ambitious target for a “pacification” program that has already ousted drug gangs from 18 slums and accompanied Rio’s revival as a center of Brazil’s oil wealth and host of huge upcoming sporting events.
According to security officials, a police patrol stopped the car carrying Nem after it left Rocinha in the early hours of Thursday. They said the car’s occupants identified themselves as the Congolese consul and two lawyers and that they offered a bribe worth 1 million reais ($570,000) to allow them to pass.
‘PACIFICATION’ PROGRAM EXPANDS
Officials said they were investigating whether the consulate had any links to the car or its occupants.
Nem, who is believed to be 35, put up no resistance when police found him and was taken along with the car’s other occupants to the federal police headquarters in Rio.
“He sent a message to his children telling them not to miss their lessons,” federal police officer Victor Poubel was quoted as saying by the Globo TV network.
Police are expected to invade and occupy Rocinha as early as this weekend as authorities take back swathes of the city that have long been dominated by armed drug gangs. Previous occupations have been carried out with barely a shot fired as gangs have been warned in advance of the invasions.
After the initial invasions, police trained in community relations take over the slums and city officials step in to provide services such as health centers and proper electricity supply, bringing residents into the formal economy.
Officials say they intend to expand the program to all of the remaining major gang strongholds by 2014, when Rio will be a World Cup host city and two years before it showcases itself to the world again as host of the Olympic Games.
Most of the occupations have taken place in slums close to Rio’s wealthier areas, leading to criticism that the program is mostly aimed at supporting the city’s real-estate boom and preparing for the sports events. Huge slums in more distant areas are still controlled by gangs or militia groups made up of rogue off-duty police and fire-fighters.
Editing by Todd Benson and Vicki Allen