(MSNBC) RIO DE JANEIRO – Drug traffickers shot down a police helicopter and killed two officers in a burst of drug-based violence just two weeks after the city won the 2016 Olympic games. Three suspected drug traffickers were also killed.
Police inspect the remains of one of their crime-fighting helicopters lying in a soccer field after it was shot down when trying to intervene in a battle between two opposing drug gangs, in a Rio de Janeiro slum October 17, 2009.
Bullets flying from the Moore dos Macaques (“Monkey Hill” in Portuguese) slum in northern Rio de Janeiro hit the police helicopter pilot in the leg as he hovered above a clash between rival drug factions, causing him to lose control and crash.
The pilot and another officer managed to flee with burns after the helicopter burst into flames on a football field, but two officers were unable to escape, said a police spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity because of department policy.
Officials did not know whether the gangs targeted the helicopter or whether it was hit by stray bullets. But the dramatic helicopter downing comes only two weeks after Rio won the 2016 Olympic games despite security concerns that have dogged Brazil’s second-largest city for decades.
The three presumed traffickers were found dead inside a vehicle in the same slum, and television broadcasts showed at least three buses set ablaze in other slums and motorists fleeing for cover as automatic weapons fire broke out in broad daylight amid the worst violence the city has seen in months.
Images broadcast by Glob TV showed flames shooting from the helicopter wreckage, with little more than charred pieces and an intact tail remaining after the fire was doused. The pilot and the officer who managed to get away were hospitalized and were expected to survive, officials said.
Rio police frequently use helicopters to take on gangs that dominate drug trafficking in the city’s more than 1,000 slums, but were unable to say whether this was the first time one of their helicopters had been shot down by gang members who use illicit military-grade weapons for combat against their rivals and authorities.
The crash happened about five miles (eight kilometers) southwest of one of the zones where Rio’s 2016 Olympic will be located. The city on Oct. 2 bested Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo for the games. Rio alone among the bid cities was highlighted for security concerns ahead of the International Olympic Committee vote.
The downing of the helicopter followed intense firefights amid rival gangs in the slum as one tried to seize a rival’s territory, authorities said.
Police moved into the area before dawn, though gunfire continued throughout the day, keeping terrorized residents inside their homes as bullets slammed into apartment buildings.
Despite increased policing efforts, Rio remains one of the world’s most dangerous cities. The violence generally is contained within slum areas, though it sometimes spills into posh beach neighborhoods and periodically shuts down the highway that links the international airport to tourist destinations.
Brazilian President Liz Inca Lull Silva and other officials have downplayed the threat of violence for the Olympics, saying Rio has repeatedly demonstrated it can pull off big events without risk to players and spectators.
Rio held the Pan-American Games in 2007 without major incidents, deploying more than 15,000 specially trained officers on the streets to keep the peace.