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Multiple people are dead after one of the deadliest police raids in a Brazilian city

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Brazil, rampant police violence has become a huge issue ahead of the October presidential election. The latest shootout between police and criminal gangs left at least 19 people dead in Rio de Janeiro. NPR's John Otis has more. And a warning - the sound of gunfire will be in the story.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The police were targeting a criminal group that controls the Rio neighborhood of Alemao. Among other crimes, the gang is accused of robbing banks and stealing cars. On Thursday, 400 heavily armed military police stormed the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

OTIS: The resulting shootouts left thousands of residents trapped in their homes and in panic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in Spanish).

OTIS: Sixteen suspected gang members, including eight with criminal records, were killed, as was a police officer and two bystanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

OTIS: On Friday, Alemao, a collection of ramshackle houses, stores and outdoor markets, remained tense.

So now three black pickups filled with military police with automatic rifles are entering the neighborhood.

Betinho Casasnovas, who is 32, runs a community newspaper in Alemao. Life here, he says, is like an undeclared war.

BETINHO CASASNOVAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: Rather than arresting gang members, he claims, the police entered the neighborhood determined to kill them. On Friday, government human rights workers were interviewing residents and trying to figure out exactly what happened. Security analysts have long accused the police of an ultra-violent shoot-first-ask-questions-later operating style. Thursday's raid was one of Brazil's deadliest in the past 30 years. It came just two months after a similar police operation killed 24 people.

Part of the problem is the widespread availability of guns. They're easy to buy on the black market while President Jairo Bolsonaro has made it easier for civilians to legally buy weapons at a growing number of gun stores. Nowadays, criminal gangs are often better armed than the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALDO OLIVEIRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: At a news conference, a Rio de Janeiro police spokesman, Ronaldo Oliveira, claimed that officers tried to peacefully arrest gang members but that they responded with gunfire.

There's also political support for such raids. President Bolsonaro, a populist former military officer, is a fierce defender of the police. As he campaigns ahead of October's presidential election, he often talks up what he describes as his robust efforts to fight crime.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: Bolsonaro brushed off the high number of casualties in the raid. Instead, he told reporters it was a job well done by the military police.

John Otis, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.