A dozen people were hurt and 27 arrested Friday in clashes between police and some of the roughly 5,000 squatters occupying a vacant industrial property in Rio do Janeiro, Brazil's second-largest city. Militants among the squatters set fire to several vehicles including a police patrol as they sought to remain on the site in the impoverished Engenho Novo neighborhood just steps away from the iconic Maracana stadium.
Most of the occupiers left peacefully when more than 1,600 Rio de Janeiro state police began the court-ordered eviction operation at 5:00 a.m., but some confronted the cops with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
With the start of the World Cup two months away, Brazil has stepped up security efforts in the metropolis, where tens of thousands of football fans will fly in for the tournament and which will stage seven matches, including the July 13 final at Maracana.
Following the eviction cranes and tractors immediately moved in to demolish wooden huts built around the building — many still full of the belongings residents had had no time to pack, with hundreds of desperate and angry residents and neighbors poured into the street protesting the loss of their new homes.
”This is what happens in the (World) Cup country,” was a repeatedly heard lament.
Among those arrested at the scene was a reporter for O Globo newspaper who said he was prevented from using his cellphone to videotape a fistfight between a police officer and one of the squatters.
The confusion and violence later spread to neighboring favelas, where a police car and several buses and trucks were burned, and banks and supermarkets were looted.
Meanwhile, on-edge police officers hit a pedestrian with pepper spray, and then when witnesses protested he had not done anything to provoke the spraying, another officer pulled a gun but fired no shots.
The shantytown emerged on March 31 when about 5,000 people who were homeless or tired of paying high rents in other slums decided to commandeer the building, which had been empty for years, and the surrounding area, where they quickly built makeshift homes.
Slogans on signs at the site linked the plight of the poor and the homeless to the large sums Brazil is spending to host the World Cup soccer tournament.