Rio fights its drug war with library books

Rio de Janeiro is trying to fight drug crime with the construction of a library that it hopes will win 'hearts and minds.'

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

On a recent holiday, school children rode bikes or stretched out on park tables around this pristine library complex. Inside, all ages can watch DVDs on flat-screen TVs, take art history courses with prestigious professors, and browse tables with books on Hinduism or travel in Turkey.

What’s less apparent under these bright, high-vaulted ceilings is that they’re surrounded by the city’s largest cracolândia – where scores of crack addicts huddle near armed dealers – known within Rio as the “Gaza Strip” for the frequency of lethal shootouts between police and traffickers.

The year-old library is Rio’s most audacious attempt to follow a crime-fighting strategy from neighboring Colombia, which promoted constructing top-quality public works in its most desperate neighborhoods as a way of winning the “hearts and minds” of residents living under drug traffickers’ control. This Biblioteca Parque de Manguinhos – a refurbished military warehouse – still echoes with the crackling sound of gunfire as police raid drug holdouts.

Grandmotherly Sandra Gullino works in the library’s nursery, where children learn to fold origami creations and flush a modern toilet for the first time. She says she encourages each child to get a library card, “even though the kid doesn’t know how to read.... This is a stimulus.”

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