A new kind of fight to fix Brazil's favelas

With the World Cup months away, the police and private projects are battling to clean up Rio's most violent drug gangs

Though the postcards show the golden sands of Copacabana, the first sight to greet anyone arriving from Rio de Janeiro's international airport is thousands of bare, clay-coloured shanties spreading across the horizon.

Unlike many of the city's favelas, which grew up on hillsides, Complexo da Maré is a flat, low-lying mass of homogenous, ramshackle houses in a seemingly never-ending sprawl. The settlement, home to some 130,000 people, is in fact a collection of 16 favela communities. But inside Maré, only one distinction matters: on which side of the drug war you find yourself.

Years of rivalry between the powerful Comando Vermelho (Red Command) gang, and the Terceiro Comando (Third Command) have left Maré divided into two territories by a perilous and invisible line that few dare to cross.

"When I was up in the north of the favela, a 12-year-old boy was beaten to death by kids from one area of the favela," said Luke Dowdney, the British founder of Luta Pela Paz ("Fight For Peace"), a boxing club turned social project in Maré.

"They saw he had sand on his feet that could only have come from the big swimming pool in the part controlled by the other drug gang. It's at that level, parts of the community run by different drug factions."

But now, the favela complex is the next target for the state's pacification programme, designed to improve public security ahead of next year's World Cup and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

On Wednesday, officers from the elite squad of Rio's Military Police carried out an anti-drug trafficking operation in Maré, which was considered a pre-emptive raid ahead of an imminent police occupation.

Soon, the community will become the 34th favela in Rio to receive a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) as part of an attempt to replace the drug gangs with police and state authorities. The plan is to pacify 40 favelas by next year.

"Maré will be a little bit different because there are no government organisations inside [the favela]," a security source said. "There's a lot of resistance. There are generations living with the money of crime. It's a culture of crime."

Close to the no-man's-land between the two territories, Fight For Peace works with 1,500 young people, including those involved in drug trafficking, coaching them in boxing, judo and the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. Set up in 2000, the project began with 10 children. Only five of them are still alive.

Mr Dowdney, whose research into the killing of street children brought him to Brazil, recalled seeing a young boy carrying an automatic gun when he first arrived in Maré. "I turned this corner and saw a kid holding an automatic weapon and thought, 'how weird'. And he said 'sorry'. How do you talk to a kid like that?

"The drug trade is about immediate gratification. It's 'I don't care whether I live or die so what the fuck.' I was always focused on working with kids in the drug trade. We have got other projects at the moment, which are focused on taking young people at a high level of the drug trade out.

"Boxing was a way of opening a dialogue with kids not engaging in conventional programmes. It makes a young person strong, teaches you discipline, about never giving up."

Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who runs the Projeto Uere school in Maré, said many of the children came from crack cocaine-using families or had parents in prison.

"This is a problem the governments have to deal with very quickly," she said. "They don't have places any more for kids who are abandoned by drug addicts.

"Crack is an epidemic, much worse than Aids. More and more kids are coming from crack families. They have cognition problems, all of them. Last year, I put eight small kids in a shelter because the mother was so drugged up."

For Mr Dowdney, news of the forthcoming pacification is welcome, and he is one of many who hope it will bring an end to the violence that has come to characterise the favela.

Earlier this year, after the outbreak of widespread demonstrations in Brazil, nine people were killed in gun battles between the drug lords and police in Maré after Rio's elite squad entered to hunt down suspects in a string of robberies.

The security forces concede that they are targeting guns more than drugs, and recognise the difficulty of winning over a public used to police brutality and corruption.

The Military Police is currently under pressure in Rio's biggest favela, Rocinha, which is also pacified, after an assistant bricklayer disappeared after being questioned by UPP officers. The case of Amarildo, who went missing on 14 July, inspired protests demanding answers from police over his fate.

"We're prepared for this mistrust from the population," a police insider said in the build-up to the pacification of Maré.

"The population is very right to not trust us but our task is to work and show another way, a different way. This different way is a way that doesn't answer gunshots with gunshots but a way that investigates and arrests people.

"Drug traffickers will not give up so easily. But we hope they give up controlling this territory with war weapons. This we will not accept – we will not leave, we will not let people live with this reality any more. They want a fight, and we use intelligence to identify and arrest people. We are not interested in a fight."

Despite the mixed reputation of the police, Mr Dowdney is prepared to work with the pacification programme to encourage peace in the favela.

"With the UPP, people are expecting it. Everyone accepts that the drug trafficking will continue but there'll be a different group making the decisions for the community," he said.

"The question is whether the police are going to act within the realms of human rights. If they are, then that's great. We very much want to see the UPP here; we don't want to see the sort of policing we saw a month ago [when nine people were killed].

"The state is present here but what is important is the quality of the support from the state. This is a community, which has two rival drug factions. It's a complex situation but with every gun that is taken off the street, it's better for everyone."

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