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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, July 18, 2013 8:27 pm

Rio police reconsider limit on tear gas at demos

The Associated Press

Police are debating whether to honor a pledge to cut the use of tear gas against demonstrators, a commander said Thursday after a small protest boiled over into rioting in one of Rio's wealthiest areas just days before a visit by Pope Francis.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of Rio de Janeiro state security officials, Col. Erir Ribeiro said the pact to limit the use of non-lethal arms during protests "didn't work out" in containing Wednesday night's violence and would have to be re-evaluated.

The pact came after widespread allegations that Rio police used non-lethal weapons like tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets excessively and indiscriminately during a wave of protests that has swept Brazil since last month.

The agreement was signed this week with Amnesty International's Brazil chapter and other groups. It was meant to be put into practice at a demonstration late Wednesday outside state Gov. Sergio Cabral's apartment on Leblon beach, one of the highest-rent neighborhoods in the country.

The protest, which drew about 600 people, degenerated into a chaotic scene of looting and destruction, with demonstrators smashing storefronts, defacing street signs and setting piles of garbage on fire.

Police responded with water cannons and dozens of percussion grenades. Photos from the clashes, which stretched late into the night, showed police also used tear gas, but it wasn't immediately clear whether the quantities deployed were as large as in previous demonstrations.

The wave of protests began in Sao Paulo in early June over a 10-cent increase in bus and subway fares but quickly snowballed into big, nationwide demonstrations over long-simmering public dissatisfaction with government corruption, poor public services and a host of other complaints. Though mass demonstrations have largely died down, smaller but often violent protests continue in Rio and other cities.

The eruption of anger coincided with last month's Confederations Cup soccer tournament, which was a dry run for next year's monthlong World Cup that will have games in 12 Brazilian cities.

Law enforcement's handling of the protests has sparked questions about Brazil's readiness to host the World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympics in safety and without disruption, and any problems during Pope Francis' July 22-29 visit would intensify doubts.

Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have already begun to descend on Rio to see the pope and attend World Youth Day, a semi-annual gathering of Roman Catholic young people. Some of the papal events are expected to draw as many as 1.5 million to 2 million people, and nearby protests could prove disruptive.