Independent Appeal: Harnessing hope for the families who live in fear

Life in a favela can be short and brutal. But one charity is hoping to change that. Jan and Ali Rocha report from Rio de Janeiro

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The Independent US

When Anderson did not come home one night, Maria feared the worst. Her 16 year old son had already been in trouble for stealing a mobile phone when he was 14. She knew he was keeping bad company.

In the Rio shanty-town where they lived drug dealers were all around, riding stolen motorbikes, wearing flashy sneakers, carrying guns. Most young men did not live long beyond their mid-20s. Maria was afraid that Anderson, who was only six when his father had left them in poverty, after months of beating her up in front of the children, would be tempted into crime.

Life in a Rio favela is dangerous. That much became clear to the world last month when almost 3,000 members of Rio’s police forces and the Army– assisted by tanks and armoured personnel vehicles – launched a mass raid on a complex of slums known as Alemão. Their targets were the organised drug gangs who were terrorising the population by torching vehicles on main roads in the city as a protest against police pacification units, which have been installed so far in 13 favelas, driving out the gangs. The police and the army have now occupied Alemao on a permanent basis, which has brought temporary peace although many residents still fear the police, many of whose local members are frequently accused of being in the pay of the drug barons.

Alemão sits next to the highway that connects most of Rio to the international airport. The authorities want to make the city safe before it hosts the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games two years later. The question, though, is safe for who?

Three years ago residents of some of the most deprived favelas in the city were caught in the crossfire of similar armed raids in which more than 50 people were killed. Some 12,000 children were affected by school closures after a 14 year old girl died from a stray bullet. Many more residents could not leave their home or attend work.

That all happened the last time Rio hosted a major sporting event, the 2007 Pan American games. Then the authorities also conducted arbitrary sweeps of the city to clear and pick up children and adolescents considered “at risk” from the streets that were part of the tourist areas or nearby the sporting circuit creating outcry from human rights organisations.

A British agency called ChildHope – one of the three charities in this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal – is working with a local partner Projeto Legal to ensure that the real victims of such crackdowns are not mothers like Maria or her teenage son Anderson.

Almost as soon as the boy disappeared Maria set off to find him. At the local police station, they said they knew nothing but told her to try a young offenders’ institute. Maria found her way there, but again, nobody knew anything of Anderson. They sent her to another institute. Nothing.

For several days Maria, increasingly desperate, sought her son. At last, back at the first institute, they produced him. He was covered in bruises and deaf in one ear. He told her that he had stolen a motorbike with a friend who had a gun, but the police had caught them almost immediately. They had beaten him and kicked him in the head, leaving him partially deaf. They had deliberately hidden him until the bruises had faded a little.

As a minor, Anderson could not be charged, but he was detained for socio-educational measures in a youth offenders institute. A few weeks later when Maria saw him again he looked awful. He told her that the police had tortured him to make him confess to murdering a policeman, the owner of the gun his friend had used to rob the motorbike. He said he had been tortured with electric shocks, waterboarded and had a plastic bag placed over his head to make him confess to a crime he had not committed.

Fearful for her son’s life, Maria began to look for help. She eventually found her way to the offices of ProjetoLegal, in the centre of Rio. After listening to her story, they took up Anderson’s case. That was a year ago. As a result of their intervention, the boy is being monitored in custody and is having treatment for his deafness. He has begun to have lessons to catch up with all the schooling he has missed. He is doing technical courses, like ceramics and electricity. When he is released, he hopes to get a job.

With global attention now focusing on Rio de Janeiro as host for the 2014 World Cup ProjetoLegal are organising a campaign against government attempts to round up children from the streets in what is widely seen as social cleansing. ProjetoLegal are also challenging what they see as the repressive and short-term focus of mega-operations like the raid on Alemão which it fears puts at risk the safety and well-being of the broader community.

For some they have already achieved a lot. Maria, a small black woman in her late 30s, says she has become much more confident in her dealings with the police and authorities, although she is still terrified when she sees the big police armoured car known as the caveirao ( big skull), trundling down the street, guns poking out of its sides. She has moved to a different favela.

Rio’s 750 favelas are home to at least 600,000 people. Many of them cling to the city’s precipitous hillsides, that rise high above the blocks of middle class apartments. The haphazardly-built brick homes, up steep narrow alleyways, often have spectacular views of the stunning Sugarloaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay. But they lack basic services like sewage and rubbish collection.

Drug gangs have taken control of many of them, ruthlessly imposing their own rules. For young boys growing up here, their only role models are the dark-glassed drug dealers, roaring around with assault rifles and chunky watches. Policemen are enemies, an idea all too often reinforced by the sort of treatment received by Anderson.

The ProjetoLegal programme which helped Anderson is called Atitude Legal, now has on its books 50 adolescents in young offenders’ institutes, and their families. Most of these families are headed by women like Maria, with absent, unknown or imprisoned fathers. Even when the father is still around, it is the mother who takes an active part in the programme.

ProjetoLegal provides legal aid and social support through an interdisciplinary team of six people – a lawyer, a social worker, a psychologist, a journalist and two trainees. Each family is individually accompanied. There are also workshops where parents and other siblings are helped to deal with their problems. This includes finding jobs and training, but also the chance to share their experiences with other families in similar situations and become more aware of their rights.

Most of the youngsters helped by ProjetoLegal are aged between 14 and 18, and have been charged with theft, robbery and drug dealing. When they leave detention, they are also invited to workshops to help them recover their self esteem, and learn about citizenship, both obligations and rights. The ProjetoLegal team tries to stay with them until they are on the right track.

But the project also takes a pro-active role when they hear about allegations of ill treatment, as in the case of Anderson. The team investigates such complaints, and has managed to bring some cases to court. To do this they work closely with public defence lawyers – a much overworked judicial department which is unable to take on all the cases for sheer lack of resources.

Sometimes they are too late. Andreu Luis da Silva Carvalho, aged 17, had just begun work as a waiter and was engaged to be married when he was arrested for alleged theft and taken to the Santo Expedito Centre, run by the Rio state department for socio-educational measures.

Three days later he was dead. Other inmates described how agents had mercilessly beaten him with pieces of wood and chairs. ProjetoLegal has demanded a proper investigation of the death of Andreu Luis and begun a campaign to get the institute where he died, closed.

It is a massive task. The city’s authorities are now talking of targeting the city’s biggest favela , Rocinha, which lies on a road that will connect the main Olympic venues to the rest of the city. The massive slum is a haven for drug dealers. But it is also home to huge numbers of vulnerable young men like Anderson and Andreu Luis who fear they could all too easily be caught in the cross-fire or by the indiscriminate casual brutality of the local police. For them ProjetoLegal may mean the difference between life and death.

Some names have been changed

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.