In Brazil, well-armed drug gangs operate with impunity in Rio de Janeiro's slums, often acting as a parallel power to the state. However, social work continues in these shantytowns in an effort to provide a better life for residents, especially young people.
To rhythmic clapping and music, two young men flip and twirl on their hands and feet in a stylized dance that imitates kick-fighting, called capoeira. Capoeira, created by African slaves in Brazil, is one of the favorite activities at a small community center in the sprawling Rio slum of Vila do Joao.
The center is run by "Community Action of Brazil," a non-governmental organization that has been helping children and adults in Rio's slums for 35 years.
Community Action's center in Vila do Joao is a temporary refuge from the drug-related violence that plagues so many slums. Heavily-armed drug gangs rule communities like Vila do Joao with an iron fist, often engaging in shootouts with rivals and the police.
But inside Community Action's center, all is peaceful, as children play and listen to stories, while older youths participate in tumbling classes, theater, painting and other activities. The center, located in a tiny house with a small garden at the edge of the slum, also offers professional training for adults, in fields such as hairdressing, cooking, and computers.
Marilia Pastuk, who is the general coordinator for Community Action, says one of the main aims of the program is to help foster dignity and self-worth.
"We're trying to help these people increase their self-esteem, to respect themselves as human beings, to have new projects, different than drug-traffick and prostitution," she said. "So, we are trying to help them to find alternative ways to build their lives, to dignify their lives as human beings."
It's a big task. Almost 20 percent of the population in Rio, or one million people, live in the city's 600 shantytowns, called "favelas". Most are desperately poor, and have to live in the midst of drug-related violence.
Children who grow up in this environment are at great risk of falling into a life of crime. 18-year-old Alexandre, who was once involved in the drug trade, managed to leave it, thanks to the opportunities offered at Community Action's center in Vila do Joao.
"I was mixed up and crazy," he says, "because a life of crime only has two results, you die or you go to jail." At the center, Alexandre has learned circus tumbling and juggling, and hopes to work in a circus some day.
There are others like him. Twenty-two-year old Walson Luiz Pereira Silva was once homeless, but now teaches the tumbling and circus class at the Vila do Joao center. He says he was lucky to avoid falling into a life of crime.
"I managed to overcome it. I have friends who became part of that life, and they are no longer alive," he said. "It was the circus and capoeira that stopped me from getting into that kind of life, and gave me a new direction. If it wasn't for the circus and capoeira, I wouldn't be here. I'd have gone over to the other side as well."
Some of Community Action's work has received international recognition. In 1998, the United Nations awarded a prize to a painting with an anti-drug message done by a 10-year-old girl from one of Community Action's projects. The painting now appears on U.N. postcards.
But General Coordinator Pastuk says the success stories are mixed with failures, of children who attend classes at the center, but then leave and go back to the streets. She estimates that only about one-fourth of the favelas' children manage to avoid this fate.
"We have some children that came here, and stayed here, and now work with us as educators, because they improved themselves. They were outside, and we helped them to study outside, and come back here to help us," she said. "And they used to be, in the past, street children. So, we have this kind of story to tell about. We have other stories of people that came here and now are in the streets. I can say, between 20-to-25 percent of the kids choose other ways of life, besides drugs, besides prostitution, besides other activities that are not so good for their future, as we think they should be."
Community Action of Brazil operates a second center in another slum as well. In all, about 1,300 people take classes and participate in activities at the two centers each month. But waiting lists to participate are long, and more would attend if the facilities and resources existed.
Ms. Pastuk says the NGO operates with a budget of only $200,000 a year, donations from Brazilian companies.
Community Action is not the only non-governmental organization working to improve life in Rio's shantytowns. There are many others, all trying to ameliorate the pervasive poverty that exists in Brazil. Fifty-three million people, or almost one-third of the population, are poor, and income distribution is one of the worst in the world. The richest 10 percent of the population controls more than 50 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 percent control less than one percent.
Community Action's Marilia Pastuk says the young people at the centers feel these disparities. "Social injustice is going on. They feel that, too. They understand that it's a kind of lack of social justice, this kind of apartheid," she said. "It's a very strong feeling for them. And, they feel that 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 we are in this kind of condition. Why?"
For the children in the tumbling class, it is a question with no answer. For now, they appear to be simply enjoying the moment, a brief interlude from the grim and violent reality outside the walls of Community Action's center in Vila do Joao.