Gangs attacked buses and police posts in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday in a wave of violence that killed at least 18 people as the Brazilian city fills up with tourists for New Year celebrations.
Seven of the people were burned to death on a bus and nearly two dozen were wounded, said Rio state public security secretary Roberto Precioso, who blamed drug gangs and their jailed kingpins for 12 attacks across the oceanside city.
Police killed seven suspected attackers and arrested three, he said. Two police officers were also killed in the violence, which recalled a wave of bloodshed that hit the business capital Sao Paulo earlier this year on orders from a powerful prison-based gang.
“It’s an act against changes in the penitentiary administration,” Precioso told a news conference.
A new state government will take office on January 1.
But state penitentiary department chief, Asterio Pereira, who steps down next week, said the attacks were probably part of a turf war between the city’s three major gangs and vigilante groups set up in some slums by off-duty police officers.
The attacks came as Rio prepared for its spectacular New Year’s Eve beach party, which draws huge crowds of tourists. More than 2 million people are expected to flock to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches where performers including U.S. hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas will take part in a globally-broadcast show.
Precioso said police had occupied 10 slums, which are controlled by drug gangs, and reinforced patrols.
Assailants sprayed a police post with bullets in the beachside neighborhood of Botafogo, killing a street vendor. Three buses and a police post were torched on the outskirts of Rio.
Over 200 people were killed in Sao Paulo after a powerful prison gang, known as the First Command of the Capital (PCC), ordered attacks on public targets in May. Police retaliated in violence that continued into July. The gang was protesting against transfers of ringleaders to tighter security prisons.
Rio police are notorious for tough tactics and their retaliation could be harsh. Police kill over a 1,000 suspects per year in Rio, more than in some war zones, and human rights groups accuse police of summary executions.
Rio has a murder rate of around 40 per 100,000 people, which is one of the world’s highest, and crime is rampant. Last March, army troops were sent into the slums, or favelas, in a crackdown on drugs gangs.
Municipal tourism secretary Rubem Medina told Reuters the attacks would hurt Rio’s image. After its famed Carnival in February, the city will host the Pan-American Games next July.
He expected 550,000 tourists for the New Year’s bash.