The Drug Traffickers’ Misstep
By Dialogo April 01, 2011
The last days of November and early December of 2010 were a perilous time for the population of Rio de Janeiro: Drug traffickers imagined themselves as a powerful organization and believed they could defy the state forces. They used an explicitly terrorist modus operandi and frightened the public with several attacks on public roads.
As if in a guerrilla war, drug trafficking was unhindered in one area of slums in the neighborhood of Leopoldina. The state, aware of the logistical problems involved in large-scale police operations in the area, was not expected to rise to the challenge of the many armed bandits. The bandits, in turn, showed themselves off to the TV cameras.
However, the traffickers were mistaken in their assessment, and in less than 24 hours police and military personnel arrived to stop their actions. The criminals suffered big losses in deaths and arrests, as well as in weapons and drugs seized.
Police had some special protection: the M-113 and LVTP-7 armored vehicles of the Marine Rifle Corps. The tracked vehicles have special mobility superior to that of the caveirão armored cars of the police, allowing them to climb the shantytowns’ hills and sweep aside obstacles placed in the roads by traffickers. Using those vehicles, police were able to stay safe despite a considerable number of shots fired by the criminals that only scratched the armored exterior.
The inadequacy of the police armored transport vehicles has long been known and would certainly have compromised the success of the operation without the help of the Marines’ armored vehicles. Usually, the Marines use the M-113s to transport the Special Police operations Battalion of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro, or BOPE. This type of transportation is also used by other nations, such as the United States and Holland. The difference is that most other police forces are exposed to a large number of shots only occasionally, so they use few armored military vehicles. But in Rio de Janeiro, police units are fighting criminals practically everywhere armed with rifles, grenades, and machine guns. For that reason, they need armored vehicles to transport their personnel, who must be prepared to be shot at several times during each excursion.
Use of the armored military vehicles greatly impressed the population and also surprised the drug traffickers, but it is striking the criminals did not have sophisticated defense tactics to fight back.
The weapons confiscation
The drug traffickers’ occupation of the Leopoldina neighborhood revealed their rudimentary technology and lack of tactical organization. Even with a considerably deadly arsenal, they were unable to use the weaponry in their hands. In addition to the weapons shown on TV, the criminals had a significant amount of artillery that could have been deadly to the police operation.
Various modern pistols were seized, mainly of the Glock brand. The model that attracted most attention was a .50AE-caliber Desert Eagle pistol, a hand-held cannon more powerful than a .44 Magnum. The purpose of having a pistol of this type was not clear to the police, since it’s difficult to handle and similar results can be easily achieved with an AK-47. The Desert Eagle weapons, with ammunition that is costly and difficult to obtain, serves more as a show of power by a criminal boss.
The criminals acquired the broad variety of arms as opportunistic purchases — as far as we know — whether they knew how to use them or not. It is not unusual for the suppliers of different factions to be one and the same, and sometimes a purchase is made simply to deny the equipment to a competitor.
Their storage conditions were mostly precarious, as was their large reserve of ammunition. The quantity of .30 caliber (7.62x63) armor-piercing ammunition shocked me. There were several reloading clips for Garand rifles. Many of the secondhand weapons were faulty or had parts in dubious condition. Unfortunately, it was impossible to examine them in closer detail to find out how many were really in working condition. However, if only one in every five machine guns was working well, the criminals would have had formidable firepower. A ZB-ZV machine gun firing armor-piercing projectiles would be enough to be a headache even for the riflemen in their M-113s. In the same way, the Rio State Civil Police’s UH-1, much vaunted as a “flying tank,” would have to take more care in its aerial sorties.
Among the items seized were empty fiber tubes (unrechargeable) of the Swedish antitank AT-4 weapon, as well as an old American-made 3.5-inch bazooka that was so well preserved it looked like it had been taken from a museum. I did not see ammunition for this weapon, even though loads for this type of bazooka have been found in Rio on previous occasions. An empty metal tube for an M-72 rocket launcher (66mm LAW) was also found hidden in a garbage can. This weapon is capable of penetrating the armor of the tracked vehicles used in the operation.
The broad picture of the captured material — some of it old-fashioned and faulty — and the use that our criminals give it really helps to reassure us, yet I cannot imagine that they will continue to be so primitive forever. We cannot sit back and count on this.
Inventory of the weapons seized
Among the weapons seized by Brazilian authorities from drug traffickers in the Leopoldina area were:
Argentine FMK-3 submachine guns
Thompson M1 (.45 ACP cal.)
French MAT-49 (9x19 caliber)
AR-15/M-16/M-4 (various configurations and conditions)
CZ (Mauser type) repeat rifles
Medium-size ZV-ZB machine guns (likely Bolivian origin)
Different models of .30 caliber air-cooled Browning machine guns (7.62x63)
Madsen machine guns
.30 caliber (7.62x63) Browning automatic rifles (BAR)
American Garand rifles (in various conditions)