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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

At Carnival, Samba Is Business

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Brazil's elite samba schools were gearing up to strut their stuff in Rio de Janeiro's world-famous carnival parade Sunday night under the tightest security ever amid threats of violence from drug gangs.

While tourists drank and danced through the weekend, those who put the finishing touches on the carnival floats were hard at work under the watchful eyes of Brazilian army troops.

"No one sleeps here," muttered a stocky man named Laila who was still barking orders to his crew Sunday afternoon as they readied a float for the Beija-Flor samba school, which is competing against 13 other groups for the carnival title this year. Some 4,000 people will parade atop or around their floats in the pre-Lenten festivities that start Sunday night.

The carnival is, after all, serious business.

Brazilian authorities are determined to protect the estimated $136 million it will bring from one of the most lucrative bashes this seaside city has seen in years. And they are concerned about protection of the 400,000 visitors, 40,000 of them from abroad.

The violence that rocked Rio last week has done little to disrupt the revelry that takes place every year in this tropical country of 170 million people in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday.

The parades that last for two days are the crowning events of the Brazilian carnival season.

One American visitor was shot in the leg while being assaulted early Sunday but was recuperating well, according to the hospital treating him.

Some 3,000 army troops carrying machine guns have been called onto Rio's streets for the first time ever to help another 30,000 police safeguard the carnival from drug gangs that burned buses, blew up homemade bombs and shot at police booths last week. The ensuing crackdown by police left 11 dead.

"The army is not going to interfere with the carnival spirit. It's helping even. We feel safer," says Arlei Ribeiro, an eager-eyed 29-year-old helping Beija-Flor.

Decked out in camouflage and black flack jackets, the army began patrolling the streets late Friday. Since then, gang-related violence has largely ceased, although petty criminals are doing their best to rip off oblivious tourists.

The carnival was to take place without Freddy Seashore, the jailed drug lord who is believed to have orchestrated the assaults from his prison cell outside Rio in retaliation for a crackdown on his gang. Luiz Fernando da Costa, who goes by the name of Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or Freddy Seashore, was transferred to prison in Sao Paulo state.

Although pre-Lenten festivities occur across the nation, it is Rio's parade -- with its elaborate floats, scantily clad women and thundering drum corps -- that has evolved into an international spectacle.

Brazilian businesses are also getting in on the action. Companies like beermaker AmBev every year set up fancy skyboxes where VIPS can enjoy the parade and mingle in private. And they are making their way onto the runway too by sponsoring samba schools, which some critics say turn their schools' themes into commercials.

It's all a long way from the carnival's humble roots, where samba bands and schools used to march through the streets of Rio's shantytowns.

But that doesn't seem to bother those who dish out up to $300 a pop to sport lavish costumes and parade down the runway with the city's famed samba schools, cheered on by 70,000 screaming fans in Rio's Sambadrome.

"There's nothing in the world like the sensation you have when you parade," said Mario Antonio, a 31-year-old health worker, as he picked up his costume outside a dingy warehouse in downtown Rio. "It's so good."