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Drug Gangs Fuel Rise of Crime in Rio de Janeiro

Drugs-still a worldwide problem, and it's not just the impact they have on users. It's much more than that. Economic activity is affected, social activity is affected. How communities actually function; that's affected, too. Take for example the Brazilian city of Rio di Janiero, where violence has become a daily occurrence in the poor neighborhoods called “favelas”. The murder this year of a Brazilian journalist, by drug traffickers in Rio has underscored the growing power of criminal gangs beyond those favelas. Journalist Tim lopes was working undercover when he was captured and killed by a local drug lord. His death prompted rallies to protest his murder and the rise in drug-related violence. VOA correspondent Bill Rodgers reports now on the high price of “Crime in Rio”.

Fifty-one year old Tim Lopes was an award-winning television journalist, and his disappearance mobilized the first of many public rallies in Rio de Janeiro. People came together to mourn his death and to hold protest marches demanding an end to the criminal violence that has gripped the city. Many of Rio’s shantytowns, or favelas, are controlled by drug gangs – a parallel power to the state. Lawmaker Carlos Minc says it is a reign of terror.

“Today in Rio, the 700,000 people living in territories controlled by the drug traffickers are forced to live in silence, under siege. Their daughters are raped, and if they open their mouths they are shot and then burned like in Auschwitz. This is terror. What is needed is a new strategy in combating drugs, because this war in the favelas is now lost. ”

Lost or not, the war continues as military police attempt to reassert control over the favelas, and arrest drug dealers.

But the drug gangs are well armed, and this gives them power. Rubens Cesar Fernandes of the anti-violence group, Viva Rio, warns the situation is becoming more dangerous.

“The problem is maybe the drug dealers are becoming more daring. They are confronting more the powers that be. So there is perhaps a change in mentality, a change in strategy where they are becoming more confrontational, and that’s a dangerous thing.”

The growing wave of violence and crime has brought fear to the city. One sign is that more people who can afford it are getting their cars bullet-proofed. Brazil leads the world in the number of cars that are armored each year by companies like O’Gara-Hess and Eisenhardt. Sales director Amaury Belmonte says it’s not a record to be proud of.

“Our violence here is very, very big. More than Colombia for instance, and Mexico. We have this bad first place in the world. We are the champions in armoring cars. We don’t want this title, but unfortunately we have this.”

The state government in Rio de Janeiro is responding by increasing police raids on the favelas. Rio’s public security chief Roberto Aguiar says has destabilized the gangs but acknowledges the problem will not be solved by raids alone.

“Those who commit the most homicides in Brazil are between 15 to 24 years old, while the majority of victims are between 15 and 24 years old. So if there is not a big investment made to save the youth, creating possibilities for them, restoring their identity, then we will be destroying a generation in this country and obviously creating serious problems for security.”

Helping young people find alternatives to crime is the work of non-governmental groups like Community Action of Brazil. At a center in the Vila do Joao favela,Community Action provides different activities and classes, from music to tumbling. Adults too get training to develop new skills. Marilia Pastuk is the general coordinator of Community Action

“We’re trying to help these people to increase their self esteem, to respect themselves as human beings, to have new projects different than drug trafficking and prostitution, so we are trying to help them find alternative ways to build their lives, to dignify their lives as human beings.”

Alexandre is one boy who left a drug gang thanks to Community Action. Another, Walson Luiz Pereira Silva, was once homeless but now teaches the tumbling and capoeira dance classes.

“It was a difficult time, it was very violent. It was the tumbling and capoeira that stopped me from getting into that kind of life, and gave me a new direction. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be here. I would have gone over to the other side as well.”

But few escape from the grinding poverty of the favelas. Social injustice is at the root of the problem, says Marilia Pastuk.

“It’s a very strong feeling for them, and they feel that, they feel that strongly, very strongly inside and some of them cannot understand why in this country, why? Why, when we have so many people, so rich, and why are we in this kind of condition. Why?”

Until this question is answered, crime and violence are likely to continue unabated.

Brazil – Favelas -