Magazine article The Humanist

Rio De Janeiro: Microcosm of the Future

Magazine article The Humanist

Rio De Janeiro: Microcosm of the Future

Article excerpt

When George Hawrylyshyn found it necessary to dodge a stray bullet in the bedroom of his apartment in midtown Copacabana, situated on one of the breathtaking beaches in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he decided it was time to move to a quieter neighborhood.

He had been a correspondent for the Associated Press and was now a successful publisher, living in a plush part of Rio, but near a favela, one of the over four hundred slums in that metropolis of more than ten million people. In Rio one in every four Cariocas (as the inhabitants are called) lives in a slum. So for the rich and affluent there is almost no escape from the ever-increasing number of poor who exercise their right to enjoy the view from the hills overlooking the sea.

Until a few years ago the well-to-do and happy crowds frenetically tried to ignore the poor, dismissing their presence except when they were needed for household duties and hard, manual labor. But with the growth of gang activity and the incidence of gang wars over the past few years, such blindness is no longer an option. Politicians have become desperate and tried to demolish and eradicate these suburbs, often targeting the poorest of the poor. Earlier this year thirty people were killed at random by the police.

In Civil War, a recent book by Luis Mir, an emergency doctor in Sao Paulo, the author reports 600,000 fatalities over the past twenty years due to gang- and police-related activities in all of Brazil, a country of 182 million people. Leading Brazilian newspapers correct him and count 700,000.

Such levels of violence are equivalent to an undeclared civil war with more casualties than the war in Iraq. "We are all in pain and shock" says Nanko van Buren, a European aid worker in Rocinha, which, with almost half a million people, is easily the largest slum in Latin America. He works with Ibiss, a nongovernmental organization trying to improve the living standards of the poor. At least twice a week he finds himself dodging stray bullets as he runs for his life. He says that police officers have been arrested, suspected of the latest killings, but doubts things will get any better soon because "the root of the problem is the unequal spread of opportunity for schooling, housing, work, and healthcare. Some people here grab any chance to share some of the enormous wealth in this country. Unless there is a better distribution of wealth, this kind of violence will remain."

But even if such a distribution were readily done, ending the violence wouldn't be an easy task. More people under the age of twenty-six are killed by guns each year in Rio than in many designated war zones. Almost without exception they are all involved in drug wars, although some are victims of stray bullets. Most fatalities and killings take place in disputes over territory between drug gangs or between gangs and the police. Gangs employ mostly teenagers to guard their domains and give them ranks as if they were in a real army. They incorrectly presume that the police won't hurt children.

Colombian cocaine paste is smuggled into Rio where it is manufactured into cocaine and either distributed throughout Brazil or exported via the Amazon to Europe and the United States. With the money earned from these drug sales, gangs buy weapons from illegal arms markets in Eastern Europe. "These arms fuel the war in Colombia but also in several slums around the continent" Van Buren says. The gangs' financial resources are vast, enabling them to purchase weapons superior to those used by the authorities. For example, drug money allows gangs to employ infrared missiles to blow police helicopters out of the sky. Their cars are faster and better able to escape. As a result, "the underequipped, underpaid, and often corrupt police have to compete with them," says Saskia Pebbens, a University researcher from Europe who is studying the violence against and by the police. For four months Pebbens cruised day and night with the military police of the Twenty-second Battalion through the worst neighborhoods in Rio. …

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