Rio Carnival to culminate with sumptuous parades

Brazil's famous Carnival kicks into high gear Sunday as the city prepares to hold sumptuous multimillion-dollar parades amid what is billed as the Greatest Party on Earth.

A light rain did nothing to dampen the festive spirit Saturday, serving more as a refreshing cool-down for bodies worked into a sweat as they danced and gyrated at the numerous "blocos," or street parties.

The monster of all the blocos, the Bloco Bola Preta, filled the center of Rio with a motley crowd of up to two million people wearing all manner of garb - or in many cases, little at all.

"Everybody is mixing here. There's no class differences. None. Everybody is here with the same plan, to have fun," said one young woman sporting Elton John-style oversized yellow sunglasses and a bouffant Afro wig.

Throughout the city, nearly 800,000 tourists, Brazilian and foreign, were taking part in the extravaganza alongside most of Rio's population of six million, turning the place into a bohemian sprawl buoyed by high-decibel samba music.

Although the focus was on Rio, which holds key parades Sunday and Monday, the whole nation was letting loose for Carnival.

In the southern state of Santa Catarina, though, tragedy struck in the form of a horrific road accident. At least 25 people were killed when the bus they were traveling in collided with an oncoming timber-hauling truck before dawn.

The carnage was by far the worst of a multitude of traffic deaths occurring as Brazilians moved around the country for the Carnival celebrations, which run until Wednesday.

Throughout Rio de Janeiro state, 50,000 police were deployed to clamp down on crime and ensure the safest Carnival possible.

Many were in the city of Rio, where this year some 30 surveillance cameras have been installed to improve monitoring, and where police have in recent months been chasing drug gangs out of some of the most lawless slums.

The re-taking of the slums "has improved the Carnival atmosphere a lot," said Paulo, a 22-year-old smiling broadly at the Bola Preta bloco. "Before it was a problem, there were muggings," but now people feel much safer, he said.

Nearby, Vanderleia, a 47-year-old nurse from a slum who was partying before starting her hospital shift, said: "We feel safer in the bloco than at home."

Although the crackdown on the gangs started in 2008, Rio authorities have stepped up their actions in recent months as they try to repair the city's reputation for crime ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

They have launched a cleanup of the police force, identifying and kicking out officers - some of them very senior - believed to have links to violent militias that also operate in the slums, executing rivals and extorting money from residents.

"You can't just fight the drug gangs but also the corrupt police," said one 20-year-old student, Tais.

For the majority of those taking part in Rio's Carnival, though, the attention was on fun, leaving behind the grime and grind of ordinary living for a five-day frenzy of drinking, kissing, dancing and beach-going.

"I'm looking for a girlfriend," affirmed one 29-year-old, Erivaldo, who had been knocking back beers since 7:00 am. He confided to AFP that he was especially interested in girls wearing Minnie Mouse costumes.

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