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Transforming a culture of violence in Rio de Janeiro


Conveying a message of respect for others and limiting violence is no easy task in a society where exclusion and social inequality are commonplace. Yet, the ICRC and the Brazilian Red Cross are endeavouring to do just that among the police and young people in the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro.


With some 250 deaths a month, violence in Rio de Janeiro has reached alarming proportions. In the struggle for supremacy between the police and drug gangs, the role of the police is increasingly being questioned. And not without reason: law-enforcement agents in Rio de Janeiro have the unenviable reputation of being among the most violent in the world. “This violence has historical roots,” explains Ignacio Cano, professor of sociology at Rio University. “The police force was created in the 19th century to keep order among the poorest classes, blacks and immigrants, as well as to beat slaves. When an owner wanted to punish a slave, he would take him to the police who would beat him before returning him. This tradition of violence has not changed for more than 200 years.”

A gargantuan task

Under pressure from public opinion, the authorities are seeking to change the culture of violence in the police force and have accepted the ICRC’s help in doing so. “We are trying to incorporate human rights provisions applicable to the use of force, also known as ‘humanitarian principles’, into police directives,” says Michel Minnig, head of the ICRC delegation covering Latin America’s Southern Cone.

The concept is simple, but harder to put into practice. “For most of the 38,000 men in the Rio State police, human rights are there just to protect criminals,” says Colonel Ubiratan de Oliveira, chief of the State Military Police. “It is very difficult to convince them otherwise when two police officers are shot dead every week by gangsters.” He is unfazed, however, by the scale of the task ahead. “The few police officers who have been familiarized with the principles of human rights have become progressively more selective in their use of arms. There is reason to hope.”

Ignacio Cano is less optimistic. As long as the police concentrate solely on conducting a war on drug dealers, human rights will never be applied. According to the university professor, segregation, exclusion and inequality have made violence a way of life at every level of society. It will take a long time, therefore, to change entrenched behaviours. That is why the ICRC is also targeting the other main perpetrators of violence: young people in the favelas. It is doing so through schools, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Brazilian Red Cross.

Alternative weapons to violence

For young slum dwellers, violence has become an integral part of daily life. Often, they are prevented from going to school by the gun battles raging in the street between the police and drug gangs. To encourage these young people to think about violence and its limits, the ICRC has launched a pilot education programme in eight schools in the poorer districts of Rio de Janeiro. “The programme aims to make pupils more aware of the mechanics of violence and its consequences,” explains Minnig. “Schoolteachers have received training in the use of this pedagogical tool, which is based on analysis of stories, photos and videos depicting real-life scenarios of conflict and armed violence. Violence must no longer be perceived as a means of communication. Learning about dialogue and respect for human rights or humanitarian principles can help change this attitude among young people.”

Penha is about half an hour by car from the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, a run-down quarter of wretched houses seemingly deserted despite the endemic overcrowding. In the local school, pupils aged between 10 and 18 years are taking part in the ICRC programme. “The results have far exceeded expectations. The students are really engaged and interested. Even if the photos are from Rwanda, Cambodia or Viet Nam, they make the connection straightaway with their everyday lives,” says history teacher Maria Teresa Pilz enthusiastically. “They have learned to listen to others, to discuss issues and, above all, to respect others’ points of view. There is also a greater sense of solidarity between them. For the moment, it’s a success.”

The students share their teacher’s ardour. “The programme has enabled me to see things from a different perspective, and in this sense it has changed my life,” says 17-year-old Evelyne. “Now we have other weapons besides violence to respond to violence, such as criticism or thought. If we don’t change the way we think, we will never change the way we behave.”

Not everyone in the favelas is a drug dealer

While school is a good place to reach the young, it is not enough by itself. “In Brazil, there are around 10 million young people who left school at an early age and have no access to the job market. They are the ones most at risk,” says Ruben Fernandes, director of Viva Rio, an NGO that works with young people who have been in trouble with the police. “You need to find other ways besides school to either educate them or help them find a job. And that’s where we come in.”

One person who has benefited from such assistance is 21-year-old Fernando. “I was part of a team whose task was to keep watch on the police’s movements in our favela,” he recounts. “It was dangerous and frightening. One day, I met a friend who told me about Viva Rio. I got out, and now I am training to be a journalist here. I write articles for a web site called Viva Favela. At last, I can lead a normal life.”

For the ICRC, NGOs like Viva Rio are an additional means of promoting respect for humanitarian principles among young people. “I think that it would be a good thing for the police to apply human rights,” continues Fernando. “But first they have to change their mentality, for example by getting it out of their heads that all residents of the favelas are drug dealers.”

The Red Cross is also striving to assist the victims of the violence. “We work closely with the ICRC,” says Luis Hernandez, president of the Brazilian Red Cross. “It is helping us to train our first-aid workers who then go out into the favelas to perform their humanitarian tasks.”

“The work of the Brazilian Red Cross is an excellent entry point to convey the Red Cross message on the limits of violence,” says Michel Minnig. “It is a message to which the inhabitants of the favelas, often the main victims of that violence, are no doubt receptive.” Changing mentalities by promoting respect for human rights and humanitarian principles is an uphill road. But it is one that the ICRC and the National Society have chosen to take in order to try to curb, by non-violent means, the violence that is undermining Brazilian society.

Residents stand near a car hit by bullets in Rio de Janeiro, 12 February 2007.









Ruben Fernandez, director of Viva Rio.









A class in Penha, a shanty town in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro.







Tackling violence
at its roots

With 195 million inhabitants and an area the size of Europe, Brazil is a major regional power blighted by endemic violence that accounts for some 40,000 deaths each year. Since 1 February 2007, 1,500 murders have been committed in Rio de Janeiro. In a move to stem the tide, the government recently unveiled its National Programme of Public Security and Citizenship (PRONASCI), with a five-year budget of US$ 3 billion. The programme includes preventive components aimed at socially disadvantaged youth, the training of police officers and increased efforts to stamp out police violence and organized crime.


Pierre Bratschi
Pierre Bratschi is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires.



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