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Brazzil - Violence - May 2004

Rio, Brazil: Rocinha Sings for Peace

Hoping to bring a semblance of normality back to the Rocinha
shantytown, in Rio, some Brazilian music big shots joined
forces to promote Rocinha Is More. The event brought
together members of the favela's community with outsiders
with one aim: to ask for peace in the embattled community.

Tom Phillips


Picture Weeks after being turned temporarily into a battlefield, the crowded slopes of Rocinha shantytown were transformed into a giant amphitheatre on Friday (May 21).

From a concrete rooftop at the foot of the favela, names from across the spectrum of Brazilian Popular Music, put on a free show calling for peace in the troubled community. Hundreds of residents took to their roofs to watch the concert.

"I know that life should be better and will be," sang crooner Fafá de Belém, facing out onto the cascading terraces of redbrick houses, reminiscence of theatre stalls. "But this doesn't stop me from repeating it's beautiful, it's beautiful, it's beautiful."

Alongside the popular singer, rapper Gabriel, O Pensador and other local groups reinforced the message. "We're here to show the authorities that we demand respect and that what we want is to pass on good things: peace, culture, the joy of life. Like Fafá sung, life is difficult but it's beautiful," he said. 

Not everybody shared this optimism. "Is the war over? No, by the contrary, it's only just started," sung one local rapper.  "And Rio de Janeiro the stage on which it is set." 

The event, Rocinha É Mais (Rocinha is More), was organized by Viva Rio—an NGO dealing with violence—in partnership with amongst others the local rapper Weelf da Rocinha.  

Weelf's forthcoming album To win or to lose—from which he performed tracks—provides a snapshot of favela life in Rio de Janeiro. One track, "Fábrica de Marginal" (Criminal Factory) describes how Rio's favelas provide a constant recruiting ground for the city's drug gangs.  

It is a reality Weelf—raised in the community since the age of two when his family arrived in Rio from Bahia—knows better than most. 

Weelf, or Carlos Weelf Teixeira Brito, was in the street near his aunt's house deep in Rocinha when the invasion began on Good Friday.  

"This woman came around the corner on a motor-taxi screaming that the guys were invading. At first nobody believed it. I thought, `Shit she must be joking'. But then everybody started running for cover in their houses. 

Rocinha, widely known as South America's largest slum, had been expecting the invasion for months. In February its former drug lord, Dudu, escaped from prison and began recruiting an army to reclaim his patch.  

But the advance warning did not make the attack any less terrifying when it finally came. Automatic weapon fire lit up the night sky as a group of 60 heavily armed bandits stormed into the community. 

"I stayed indoors listening to the shots down below and then closer by," remembers the 26-year-old rapper. "I thought about how many innocent people have already died, if anyone I knew had been killed. I thought about how easily bullets pass through the walls around here." 

Weelf says part of the blame lies with the media.  "The press were stupid. They put in the papers that the drug trade here is worth R$40 million, which of course it isn't, and the others rival drug traffickers got jealous… These guys just think about money." 

Six weeks on from what is known as the "Holy Week War", the uncertainty in his voice captures perfectly the mood in Rocinha. "I think it'll be difficult for him [Dudu] to come back. I don't think the police will allow it. But nothing is impossible."  

Though police arrested the brother in law of Dudu last week, the scent for Rio's most wanted man seems to have gone dead. Some believe corrupt police are keeping him in a safe house. 

Rubem César Fernandes, coordinator of civil rights group Viva Rio, shares Weelf's frustration.  "This is going on too long," he said looking out from a concrete rooftop in the centre of Rocinha. "People have been dying here since January."

Joining Hands

Hoping to bring some semblance of normality back to the community, Fernandes and Weelf, joined forces last week to promote Rocinha É Mais. The event brought together members of Rocinha's community with outsiders with one aim: to ask for peace in the embattled community.  

"The expectative is that today will be a marking point in overcoming this phase of the conflict," said Fernandes. "I think there is a general consensus about the need to have police here to prevent another invasion." 

However, the Viva Rio coordinator raised serious questions about the policing of the community. "The situation is madness, a kind of Babel. There are 25 different battalions working here. Some of the officers take 7 hours to arrive here, coming from the Baixada Fluminense, Magé, Alcântara, the East Zone." 

"There is no central command. You don't have adequate control and this leaves the system open to all kinds of abuses."  He praised the recent moves to bring social projects to the area, but said alone that would not be enough.  "This is all important but without first solving the problem of violence, you won't be able to solve anything." 

Rapper Gabriel, O Pensador, criticized Rio's governors for the current security crisis. "Unfortunately I've never had the chance to speak well of [Security Minister Anthony] Garotinho," he said. 

"Like Fafá sung, life is difficult but it is also beautiful," he added, breaking into an impromptu chorus of Gonzaguinha's "O que é, o que é" with Fafá de Belém. 

Weelf painted a more pessimistic image of the community, currently dominated by one bloc within the Comando Vermelho drug faction.  "The solutions that the authorities give to us are traffickers or thieves," he rapped to a crowded Valão (the road by which sewage runs out of the community), one of the more dangerous parts of Rocinha, which becomes an open-air cocaine market after dark. 

His words were underlined moments later when, with hundreds of locals looking down on the spectacle from all over the community, one of the organizers offered a chilling tribute over the PA system.

"Distance allows us to feel saudade (longing) but not to forget."  It was the same homage left at the grave of Rocinha's former drug lord, Luciano Barbosa da Silva, killed by police last month. Perhaps a coincidence, or perhaps not.

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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