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Brazzil - Poverty - April 2004

We're in Rio, Brazil. Welcome to Gaza Strip.

While the eyes of Brazil have been focused on Rocinha and the
war of local drug lords for controlling the place, the situation is
far from better in other Rio favelas. In the first of two reports from
the Complexo da Maré in Rio's north, Tom Phillips talks to members
of two neighboring communities divided by the drugs trade.

Tom Phillips


Picture According to locals, the first shots were fired just after the final whistle. Brazil's biggest football club—Flamengo—had just beaten Vasco da Gama 3-1, winning the state cup. Fireworks exploded over Rio's gargantuan Maracanã football stadium, tinting the sky with the team's colours—red and black.

North of the city—in the long forgotten Baixa do Sapateiro slum—the crackle was of gunfire and not fireworks.

"The drug dealers were celebrating the Flamengo victory by shooting," says human rights activist Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who works on the next street at Projeto Uerê of which she is president.

"So the police came in and in 10 minutes there was a war here."

Located at the entrance to the Baixa do Sapateiro favela, Oliveira Street was full of people when the shooting began. Though the road sits just a few hundred metres from the motorway, which links the International Airport and Rio's chic South Zone, it isn't a place familiar to most Cariocas, let alone visitors.

A stone's throw up the road is the 22nd Police Battalion. Residents say the police arrived in two cars, shooting down the street in the direction of Praça 18. When the firing stopped six people lay dead.

"They were all workers, good people," said one member of the community.

The next day, the rubro-negro (red and black) victory was splashed across the front pages. Nowhere was there any mention of the six alleged victims.

"People aren't interested," says de Mello. "They don't care. Many kids were shot here last year by police. Who cares? Brazilians get tired, we lose so many lives here."

"I was in Vigário Geral the other day and 14 people were killed, but it was not in the newspaper," she adds.

According to de Mello, who worked with the street children of Candelária, exterminated in 1993, the press were ordered not to film in the favelas, after the brutal murder of journalist Tim Lopes in 2002. Lopes was filming undercover in a nearby favela, when he was caught by traffickers and hacked to death with a samurai sword.

"Sometimes they call me and ask me to take the kids out of the favela for them to film," she jokes grimly.

There's hardly a building on Oliveira Street unmarked by bullets. The rickety footbridge, which crosses its putrid canal, is pockmarked from the previous days shooting. "They're from a pistola. That's what they [the police] tend to use," says P., a local 17-year-old.

"Welcome to Vietnam," says another, half-joking.

It's not the only wartime nickname the locality has earned.

Worse than Gaza

"They call it the Faixa de Gaza [Gaza Strip] around here, too," points out English anthropologist Luke Dowdney, who works in the nearby favela of Nova Holanda. The comparison with Israel is not without basis: between 1987 and 2001, nearly 4,000 Cariocas met violent deaths, compared to just 467 in the West Bank, an actual war zone.

On the ground, a handful of rusty, spent 9mm Luger cartridges (a bullet widely used by Brazilian police) signals that the Sunday evening shootout was not the first in the area.

Baixa do Sapateiro is one of 17 favelas, which form the notorious Complexo da Maré, a labyrinth of slum housing, which houses some 110,000 impoverished Brazilians.

"It's mais ou menos (more or less) around here," says teacher Liliane França, 23, who has worked in the area for two years. An 8-year-old student standing nearby is quick to correct her. "Muito tiro," she says. "Lots of shooting."

"We have to try and get on with it," explains França, in her cramped classroom, which incredibly hosts 40 local kids at a time. "The kids aren't to blame, so we try and leave their problems outside."

For the younger generations of the Baixa do Sapateiro the problems are numerous, foremost amongst them the three-way drug war being played out in the area. Baixa do Sapateiro—controlled by the Terceiro Comando (TC) or Third Command—is hemmed in by two rival favelas.

One hundred metres from Yvonne Bezerra de Mello's Projeto Uerê—an educational project, serving children from the local community—one of several sewage outlets marks the border with Nova Holanda.

Though you could almost jump across the heavily polluted waterway, the two communities are inseparably divided. Nova Holanda is the territory of an enemy drug gang—the Comando Vermelho (CV) or Red Command—and is out of bounds to those from this particular part of Maré.

The border, or "fogo cruzado" (cross fire) as it has come to be known, has been the scene of countless gun battles in recent years, as the drug gangs attempt to expand their drug market.

"You can see there are bullet holes on both sides of the bus stop," says social worker Ayrton Ribeiro as we turn off the frontline, onto the street which links Baixa do Sapateiro and Nova Holanda.

Beside the squalid canal, which marks the divisa (division) between `TC' and `CV' land, is a so-called `Brizolão', a primary school built by former governor Leonel Brizola. Its walls—like most around here—are riddled with bullet holes. More cartridges litter the floor. The playground—in a no-man's land between rival snipers—hosts a midday kick-about.

Drug, a Way of Life

The presence of the movimento (one name used for drug traffickers here) in Baixa do Sapateiro is barely masked. Within 300 metres of its solitary PPC (Posto de Políciamento Comunitário or Community Policing Post), three bocas (drug markets) function openly, selling cocaine and marijuana at all hours of the day. On the police station's veranda sits an officer in his fifties, glasses perched on the tip off his nose, studying the newspaper. Two large fans are trained on his body, fending of the stifling heat.

According to Ayrton Ribeiro, the coordinator of Projeto Uerê, a tiny fraction ("0.000001 per cent," he says) of the community are involved in the drugs trade. Though other residents contest this figure, what is certain is that 100 per cent of the favela's 6,000 residents are affected dramatically by the drug industry.

"You never know when it might start. The shots could come from either direction," Ribeiro explains, taking me along one of the community's main streets, past a string of market stalls.

Local children—both directly and indirectly—are often those who suffer the most. Locals say around 200 local kids are caught up in the drug trade. In the neighbouring community of Vila do Pinheiro (controlled by a third and smaller faction, Amigos dos Amigos) the figure is slightly higher at 300. Taking the Complexo da Maré as a whole, it is thought some 2000 young boys, between 13 and 18, are involved.

Though it is all to easy for the area's younger generations to become involved in the cocaine trade, the issue of education is much more complicated. So much as getting to school can be a challenge.

"The main problem is the three comandos in this area," says de Mello.

"You have 3 kinds of ghetto. People can't go through the other comandos. Because of this the kids… can't go to the schools. Here in the Terceiro Comando we have three schools. [But] the kids can't go to school because three schools is not enough for this area and they can't go through the other comandos to go to school."

Even for those enrolled in local schools, a lack of funding means that there are often not enough teachers.

"According to a recent study, 60 percent of kids don't finish school in Rocinha. Here the figure is maybe 70-75 percent. They don't have teachers."

The situation is identical across Rio's periphery, says de Mello. "It's the same thing everywhere, in Nova Iguaçu, Duque de Caxias."

As well as being terrorised by the drugs trade, locals also suffer from staggering rates of unemployment—around 70 per cent according to Ribeiro.

"There's no income," de Mello explains. "Most of the families live with R$ 65 (US$ 20) a month. They don't have money to even buy gas for cooking. Or they don't eat or they eat very badly. Some of them chop the furniture to make fire to cook. It's unbelievable 20 minutes from downtown Rio."

Yet in spite of the enormous problems facing the community, some locals describe their community with fondness.

It's Home, After All

"It's an ok around here," says one 42-year-old housewife, brought up in the community when it was largely made up of wooden huts on stilts. "There's just a few coisinhas (little things), that spoil it like the traffickers"

"It's a good place to live," says E., a 17-year-old, from the nearby Complexo do Alemão, who has lived in the area for eight years.

E., who until recently worked for the Terceiro Comando in a local drug den, nearly lost his brother two years ago when, aged nine, he was shot twice in the chest by police during a shootout on the border with Nova Holanda. When E. became involved in the drugs trade his mother fled the community, to live in another favela.

"At the moment it's a bit violent all over the Complexo da Maré," he admits. "But I like it. We just need to know how to make our community better because it's really cool here. There's lots of movement at night."

De Mello says many residents have come to accept the cycle of endless everyday violence.

"That is their everyday. For them it's normal. They don't know otherwise. When you take a kid out of the favela the first thing they ask is, `In your house do you have shootings?'"

"They think, `There's violence everyday, why should I not be comfortable with the situation.' It's the absolute norm."

Sat in the classroom of her project—founded in 1997—de Mello is pessimistic about the future.

"There's no future. This is it for them: the telenovelas (soap operas), the baile funk (funk ball) and the drug dealers. That's the life."

The buildings in this part of the favela were constructed eight years ago by a government project called Favela-Bairro.

At the time, the authorities, apparently without the slightest sense of irony, dubbed this particular project `Morar sem Risco' or `Live without Risk'.

It is another grim echo of the state of unofficial civil war that exists within the Complexo da Maré, and in other parts of Rio's periferia (periphery). Though the community is living a period of relative calm, the shootings, between police and rival drug traffickers, continue.

Human Rights campaigner Marcelo Freixo said he would investigate the alleged shooting on Oliveira Street on April 18.

"It happens a lot," admitted the Global Justice activist. "Three weeks ago, I received information that, in January, five boys were killed by the police in the favela of Caju. They had been executed by the police… three were thrown into the canal and another 2 taken to the hospital but all were dead.

"Unfortunately," he said, "it is a permanent reality in Rio de Janeiro."

Tom Phillips is a British journalist living in Rio de Janeiro. He writes for a variety of publications on politics and current affairs, as well as various aspects of the cultura brasileira. Tom can be reached on tominrio@yahoo.co.uk.

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