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Fed Up With Rio's Rising Violence, Residents March to Force Action

By Jack EpsteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 1995



RIO DE JANEIRO

THE parade, in many ways, looked like Rio's Carnival. Confetti streamed down on revelers, some marchers wore regal robes and body paint, and drums beat to samba rhythms.

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But the message was not celebratory. It was a call for action as tens of thousands of people filled Rio's downtown streets on Tuesday to demand an end to the city's out-of-control violence.

''I am here so other mothers won't have to suffer what I have,'' said Maria Regina Angeiras, whose son was killed last year by two muggers.

Billed as ''Rio Reacts, a Million People on the Streets for Peace,'' the march fell short of its goal of drawing that many people because of wind and rain. Protest organizers say as many as 300,000 braved the stormy weather, while the police estimated the crowd at 70,000.

Yet the rain did not dampen the enthusiasm of those who began marching at a church where seven street kids were gunned down in 1993 and ended a mile later by singing the Brazilian national anthem near a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

Most marchers wore T-shirts emblazoned with ''Rio React,'' ''Peace in Rio,'' or ''End the Violence Before It Ends Rio.'' They paraded in groups, which included mothers who lost their children to violence, workers, business executives, soccer players, politicians, actors, singers, homosexuals, students, church leaders, and slum dwellers.

''We wanted to bring all of Rio together to show that there is still hope,'' said march coordinator Rubem Cesar Fernandes, who heads Viva Rio, a private group organized to improve city security.

Mr. Fernandes says the idea for the march came up after three separate kidnappings for ransom on Oct. 25 stunned city residents. The victims were children of prominent Rio businessmen and were seized in broad daylight in front of scores of witnesses. Two were later rescued.

In the following days, friends and relatives of the three teens protested on city streets calling for their release. Soon, civic leaders decided to do the same on a much larger scale regarding all violence. Rio has long had the reputation of being the kidnapping capital of the hemisphere, averaging nine a month.

Yet kidnapping is only one part of the picture of violence. There are frequent bank robberies, muggings, car thefts, and shoot-outs between police and drug gangs. In a recent poll of children between 8 and 12 in age, 32 percent said they saw more violence on Rio's streets than on television. Rio is currently the eighth-most-violent city in the world with 56 victims for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to a study by the Sao Paulo Catholic University.

Most of the violence occurs in Rio's favelas, or shantytowns, where drug lords have set up virtual governments. In the most recent incident, 10 people were killed last month after traffickers fired machine guns and tossed grenades at a party in a favela run by a rival drug gang.

To combat these gangs, state officials called in the armed forces a year ago to help the inept local police patrol the favelas. While the Army did enjoy some initial success and Cariocas - as Rio residents are known - breathed a feeling of short-term security, the four-month military operation failed to stem the violence.

Critics, however, say neither President Fernando Henrique Cardoso nor Rio de Janeiro State Gov. Marcello Alencar has shown the political will to improve the situation. Viva Rio's Fernandes says only massive investment in favela infrastructure and police reformation will end the violence. On Wednesday, he kicked off a campaign to raise $520 million for such projects.

A $300 million program financed by the city and the Interamerican Development Bank is expected to begin soon to improve electricity, sanitation, schools, and health in 150 favelas.

President Cardoso announced on Tuesday that the armed forces will be sent to patrol the Rio port, international airport, and state highways to combat arms and drug trafficking. In December, police experts from the United States, Canada, and Japan will give workshops to police, and Rio citizens on neighborhood-watch groups and business executives will meet with favela dwellers to discuss investments in their neighborhoods.

In the meantime, Mr. Fernandes hopes the march will spark a definitive effort to rescue the city. ''From tragedy often comes rebirth,'' he said.