Gang Violence in the Favelas of Rio

Dear friend Kurt Shaw just sent a fascinating and disturbing email about impending gang violence in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. Kurt runs a nonprofit called Shine a Light which works with street kids throughout Latin America. He travels throughout favelas in the region collecting best practices from NGOs working with street kids and sharing them with other organizations. He’s in Rio now, waiting for all hell to break loose:

Yesterday, the headline in the Jornal do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro’s local paper, was “Vidigal prepares to invade Rocinha.” Apparently, an alliance of gangs had decided to send a press release to the papers as well as to the police before moving their troops through the city to invade another favela — just another surreal touch in one of the strangest urban wars in history.

Since this gang war began in the 1980s, the conflict has killed more people than any other civil war during the same time period (not including the Rwandan genocide) — more than Colombia, Liberia, Sudan, Afgahanistan — and it is happening a half an hour walk from the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, where beach soccer and sunbathing continue as they always have. The war is mostly about control of drug distribution points, with 3 rival, semi-organized gang networks and the police all unable to gain control.

Just as I wrote that last phrase, a rocket exploded over me, suggesting that the invasion is about to begin — at entrance and the top of each favela, a lookout sends up fireworks at the first sign of an invasion, and Rocinha is just on the other side of Corcovado from me. Monday night, the explosions were deafening, first fireworks, then guns and grenades, and 22 people died in Vidigal. During that same battle, an 8 year old boy was hit by a stray bullet not 200 yards from my apartment.

The amazing thing, I think, is the way that life goes on even as the bullets fly. I’m working with community organizers in some of the most violent favelas, and for them, all of this has become almost normal, something they want to stop, but in front of which they feel powerless. Instead, they do what they can, organizing day care for kids, trying to make schools a little safer, lobbying to get pedestrian bridges build over highways so they can get to work. And in the center of the city, the culture of Rio continues: the film festival this week, the Ballet of la Scala is playing at the Teatro Municipal, people swarm the beaches, and nothing can stop a soccer game in Maracan.

It is admirable, really, I think. Two men with a rifle paralyzed Washington a couple of summers ago; after Colombine, thousands of schools installed metal detectors; terror has changed the way the US sees itself. Here, where violence is much more real, people continue with their lives, drums samba on until dawn, and people play soccer on the beach as bullets fly over their heads into the ocean.

The situation in Rocinha gained media attention in April when clashes between reigning druglord Lulu and former gang boss, Dudu, got so violent they required intervention by military police. Brazilian President Lula was asked to consider sending in troops to secure the area; others have proposed a 3 meter high wall surrounding the favela, isolating it from more “desirable” parts of the city.

The violence ended with Lulu’s death at the hands of the police. Gang lords ordered all shops in the favela closed the following day, in mourning for Lulu.

Blogger EastWestSouthNorth has photos and news stories from April’s violence in Rocinha, which s/he describes as “Brazil’s Faluja”.

Google News currently shows 0 stories for search term “rocinha” – if you’re interested in following this story, you might do better to follow Viva Favela, a website dedicated to bringing news and perspective from Brazil’s hundreds of favelas, as well as Jornal de Brasil.

Update: Kurt reports that Dudu was likely killed in one of the more recent skirmishes – there’s a search on for his body. Still not a single story for “Rocinha” in Google News.

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