Favelas and Rio middle class unite
against drug trafficking violence
“Rocinha was asleep for ten years, as in a fairytale. For residents to wake up, this tragedy had to happen. It was through disgrace that Rocinha came awake.”
The metaphor was delivered by Lino Santos Filho, 52, vice-president of the Rocinha Residents Association. Better known as Uncle Lino, for the last 20 years he has captured the imaginations of children and adolescents from the community through art. “I have helped a lot of kids out of the drug trade,” said the association veteran. “The group here is young, all kids, I am the only old man” jokes Lino.
Uncle Lino was there when Rocinha residents were threatened with removal in the 1970s, a threat hanging over the community at the time. With the right to remain on the Dois Irmãos hill, overlooking some of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, life went on. However, for Lino, the community (and all of Rio society) seemed to have fallen asleep at the wheel. When it finally woke up, Rocinha was dominated by violent armed gangs that alternate in power, determine survival rules and move millions of Reais in the marijuana and cocaine trade.
During the Holy Week holiday at the beginning of April, drug trade violence left Rio de Janeiro in a state of shock. In an operation that was predicted by the police and feared by Rocinha residents, drug traffickers from a rival faction tried to take control of the locations where drugs are sold in the favela, spreading terror in and around the community.
Ten people were killed in four days. Among them were labourers living in the community, policemen, traffickers and a resident of São Conrado, an upper middle class area bordering the favela, who was driving by at the moment that traffickers were preparing to invade. Stores and schools closed during the week, the routine of those who work or live in the vicinity was altered, and practically all sectors of Rio society spoke out against the violence.
In the first days after the conflict, newspaper headlines reflected the general sensation of Rio residents, declaring “chaos” and “undeclared civil war.” Soon, fear and a sense of impotence gave way to reflections on the roots of the problem, and civil society began to react.
The two sides of Two Brothers
Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers in Portuguese) is the name of a 533 meter hill where it is possible to view Ipanema and Arpoador beaches, the Christ the Redeemer statue and other Rio landmarks. The Dois Irmãos tunnel runs through the hill, linking Leblon and São Conrado, two neighbourhoods of the city’s elite. On the same hill are the 127,000 houses and shacks of the Rocinha favela.
Since it was in Rocinha, which is in the heart of the city’s better-off southern zone, and the conflict stopped traffic and threatened the elite, the impact and reaction was greater than in other communities where this violence is routine,” says anthropologist and Viva Rio co-ordinator Rubem César Fernandes.
After more than 900 policemen occupied the favela and the state’s vice-governor suggested surrounding Rocinha with a three meter high wall to prevent further expansion, the quickest and most effective response to the conflict was the creation of the Dois Irmãos Forum. The forum was an initiative of the Rocinha Resident’s Association, who called on neighbours from near-by wealthier areas and representatives of diverse sectors of Rio society to join them to discuss solutions to the problem.
The troubled unite
The forum is intended to create a dialogue between Rocinha residents and other neighbourhoods affected by the violence: São Conrado, Gávea and Leblon. The Resident’s Association also asked area institutions to join in, including the Pontifical Catholic University, the São Conrado Fashion Mall, and religious institutions. Possible investors in projects to target violence also came forward: the Roberto Marinho Foundation, Unibanco Institute, the Federation of Rio de Janeiro Industrialists (FIRJAN), and SEBRAE (which supports micro and small businesses). Viva Rio, which supported the Resident’s Association before the conflict, served as a reference point, says Rubem César.
“We joined as mediators, because Viva Rio has negotiating experience. Our board is made up of people from the favela and from the elite. We were able to sit and talk with the security secretary and the chief of police. Community leaders are very weakened due to the drug trade, if they speak out against the police people think that they are defending the criminals. We can join together the associations, businesses, the institutions and the government.”
Youth are priority
In the first forum meeting, it was made clear that the emergency proposals should focus on adolescents, who are recruited by the drug traffickers when they are out of school and unemployed. The first projects presented seek to improve education.
“Today, the majority of children attend school, but drop-out as adolescents, usually in the fourth or fifth series. It is very clear to us that the target group of these projects, the risk group, are adolescents and young people who have left school before finishing basic education,” says Rubem.
Two courses are being offered, one a FIRJAN project that will provide literacy-training for five thousand young people and adults (15 years and older). The other will benefit more than 300 young people through their participation in the Community Telecourse, a project of the Roberto Marinho Foundation and Viva Rio. University entrance exam courses offered by the Teresiano College are also being planned.
The big advantage of these courses is that they will take place within the community. “It is very difficult for a young person to leave their home at 5am to commute a long distance to study,” says Tânia Rodrigues, resident and president of the NGO, Rocinha 21. Education, says Tânia, is a priority because it opens the door to employment and helps to provide young people with a sense of values. “I believe in transformation through education.”
According to the police’s anti-drug office, the drug trade in the favelas of Rocinha, Mangueira and Dendê alone moves almost R$ 50 million per month. The average monthly per capita income in Rocinha is R$ 219 and 21.89% of the population, according to a study by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, earns less than R$ 79 a month. The average years of schooling in Rocinha is the lowest in the 32 administrative regions that make up the municipality of Rio.
The challenges go far beyond education and employment and income generation. The favela is full of open sewerage, the majority of homes are irregular, and there is a lack of health clinics, among other problems. But residents say that they have finally ‘woken up’:
“The community is awake. What happened was an alarm for many people. We feel that society wants the best” says Tânia. “What we want to know is if this is for real or is just passing” questions Uncle Lino.
If it is up to the will and the organisation of residents, Rocinha will only improve. However, the other sectors of Rio society must remain involved and government must do its part.