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Posted: 5/4/2004 2:30:58 AM EST
[Last Edit: 5/4/2004 2:31:25 AM EST by raven]
Brazil gang robs Air Force armory
Arsenal found in shantytown

Monday, May 3, 2004 Posted: 6:01 PM EDT (2201 GMT)

A guard secures the gate at a Rio air force armory after a van with assault rifles was stolen Monday.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) -- Armed men stole a van with assault rifles from a Brazilian Air Force armory on Monday in Rio de Janeiro and police found anti-tank rockets in a slum -- fresh signs that the city's drug gangs are expanding their arsenal and firepower.

The events occurred two weeks after police discovered an arsenal in another shantytown in the crime-ridden city that surprised even hard-boiled Rio violence experts as it contained eight Belgium-made land mines and more than 100 grenades.

The finds underscored the drug gangs' increasing firepower and sophistication at a time when authorities are struggling to crack down on their trade and the government is considering sending army troops into the city.

U.S.-made M72A2 anti-tank rocket launchers, two of which police found on Monday, can pierce more than 30 cm (1 foot) of armor, which makes even army tanks vulnerable to gangsters' fire. Armored vehicles used by police can be pierced by bullets from heavy machine guns that some gangs also have, police say.

Police found the disposable launchers along with 10 assault rifles, five grenades and plenty of ammunition in an improvised armory of the local drug lord inside the Vila Vintem slum. Nobody was arrested as bandits had fled the shanty town.

Stolen from armories?
Police investigator Reginaldo Vall Lloveras told Reuters the rockets and some of the assault rifles had apparently been smuggled into Brazil, but other weapons are used exclusively by the Brazilian army and could have been stolen from armories.

Police believe the grenades found two weeks ago were originally in the possession of the Air Force as well.

"This is not the first time this has happened in Rio," a police officer who asked not to be named said, referring to the armory heist. "The (armories) have been a frequent target of criminals and the drug dealers in Rio are arming themselves more each time."

He said five gunmen overpowered three soldiers on guard at the armory and took two others hostage after stealing guns, ammunition and bullet-proof jackets. The two soldiers were later released unharmed.

The Air Force issued a statement later saying 22 assault rifles and one automatic pistol had been stolen. It has in the past denied any disappearance of grenades from its stocks.

Gen. Jose Rosalvo Leitao de Almeida, head of arms control at the Brazilian Army, told Reuters last week the military were exercising strict control over weapons and said armory heists were rare, blaming most of illegal arms trade on smuggling.

The Brazilian government is mulling whether to send 4,000 federal troops to Rio to help police safeguard the city, which has become as famous for its crime as its scenic beaches.

Last month, police special forces occupied Rio's largest hillside slum, Rocinha, to put an end to a turf war between rival drug gangs there. At least 13 people died in the fighting, schools were shut and many people fled their homes.

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