RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – A year ago, the streets in Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro featured gunmen from the drug trade engaging in battles with security forces and local rivals, putting the lives of the residents at constant risk.
But on Oct. 12 – a national holiday to honor Our Lady of Aparecida, the patron saint of Brazil – it was soldiers from the Army’s Peacekeeping Force that took over the local streets to mingle with locals and celebrate Children’s Day.
In order to prevent the return of narco-traffickers who once controlled the streets, the army occupied the 15 communities that make up Complexo do Alemão, as well as Vila Cruzeiro, one of the 10 slums that make up Complexo da Penha, on the north side of Rio de Janeiro, in December 2010.
Ten months later, the army celebrated the holiday by throwing a party in the two communities. With live music, army-trained dogs, horseback rides, a magic show, face painting and the distribution of toys and meals, the soldiers strengthened their ties with local residents.
“We couldn’t play last year,” said 9-year-old Júlio César Barbosa Júnior, who was ecstatic after receiving a toy car from the army during the party.
The boy’s father, Júlio César Barbosa, a 31-year-old stonemason, said he had “never seen a party like this in the community.”
Débora de Franco, a 31 year-old cosmetics saleswoman, brought her three children to the party. Born and raised in Complexo do Alemão, she said “life improved 100% after the authorities took control of the region.”
“You don’t see any more addicts lying on the ground, no guns, no violence, nobody getting beaten up,” she said. “It’s a much better place to raise three children, especially since they’re boys.”
Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro were notorious for the violence associated with drug trafficking, which ate away at the two areas until the arrival of security forces on Nov. 25, 2010. There are currently 1,850 soldiers deployed in the region.
In the beginning of September, the two areas occupied by the authorities were back in the headlines. Conflicts between residents and soldiers resulted in the use of crowd control weapons by the army.
The conflicts had been incited by holdovers from the drug trade, in an attempt to prevent the installation of Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) in the region, according to Rio de Janeiro state authorities.
The incidents led to the Sept. 9 announcement by Public Safety Chief José Mariano Beltrame that the installment of UPPs in the region, originally scheduled for July 2012, was being bumped up to March.
“Nobody is going to undo 40 years of dominance by the drug trade in a short period of time,” Beltrame said in an official release. “There’s no magic. Incidents will occur, but we’ll make sure that the quality of people’s lives is improved.”
The government announced there will be nine UPPs in the two regions, with a total force of 2,200 Military Police officers. The transition from the army’s peacekeeping troops to the state police force will be gradual.
From March to May 2012, about 500 Military Police officers will be assigned to the region monthly. In June, another 700 will join them.
Soon after the conflicts, state officials and representatives from the security forces met to discuss alternatives for regaining the community’s trust.
“There were a few random incidents, but the relationship with the community has been very good since the pacification began. It’s gotten better every day,” says Capt. Rodrigo Sobral, a 32-year-old public relations officer for the Army’s Peacekeeping Force.
Soldiers are engaged in three regional community projects.
The “School: A Path to Peace” project, which has the support of the Municipal Department of Education, is aimed at showing students the importance of education as a tool for exercising their rights as citizens and improving their quality of life.
The project includes lectures given by army personnel who provide information on the military, family skills and drug awareness. The initiative also brings in former students, who grew up in Vila da Penha and achieved professional success, to talk with students about their careers.
A booklet telling the story of four friends – one of whom entered the drug trade – paved the way for illustration and writing contests. Students were asked to submit their reflections about the story in a contest, with the best of the 20,000 entries recognized during a ceremony on Aug. 25 held in commemoration of Soldier’s Day.
The outcome of the contest showed changes in the students’ perception of their communities, Sobral says.
In the texts and illustrations, guns and drug dealers were replaced with messages of hope, of family, a better future and peace.
“It’s a reflection of the moment they are experiencing,” Sobral adds.
Proudly displaying his certificate of participation in the contest, Ranniel Brum de Lima, 8, says he drew a picture of a soccer match with his friends in the community field.
Ranniel’s mother, Maria do Carmo Brum, 44, says she can now give her son more leeway.
“I used to be afraid to leave him alone,” she says. “Now, I’m not worried about letting him loose to play.”
Another project, “Itinerant Justice,” devised by the Rio de Janeiro justice system, with the support of the Peacekeeping Force, offers notary public services and legal advice to residents on a bus that circulates the community.
“I saved a bunch of time. It was quick and organized,” says Laís Barbosa, 14, who visited Itinerant Justice to request an ID card.
And “Justice Here,” created by the National Justice Council (CNJ), operates out of the headquarters of the Peacekeeping Force in Complexo do Alemão. The initiative offers a variety of judicial services and also attempts to resolve minor conflicts between residents through mediation and reconciliation.
“My son is growing up here now and seeing something new,” says João Paulo da Conceição, a 31-year-old refrigeration mechanic who attended the Children’s Day party with his 3-year-old son Isaac on his shoulders.
Conceição’s wife, Joseane Carla da Silva, 31, agrees.
“Now, the only ones with guns are the authorities,” she says.