Violence in a Rio slum turned a suburban pastor into an activist
Antônio Carlos Costa was happy as a pastor in suburban Rio de Janeiro. But violence in a city slum changed his life forever.
RIO DE JANEIRO
Police helicopters twirl ominously over a favela (slum) controlled by drug traffickers as elite police sharpshooters bang on doors and one by one enter each home in the community. The favela has been the site of weekly police incursions as a growing number of crack cocaine users congregate there and members of Rio's largest street gang move in – pushed out of favelas elsewhere by new police units.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Antônio Carlos Costa, a bespectacled, gray-haired pastor in Converse high-top sneakers, strolls past the cops with a few volunteers from his middle-class church across town and residents of this favela. They decide to take an early lunch to wait out the police operation before returning to their project: cooking nutritious meals for crack addicts in the favela.
"When I come back from a prison or a place like this favela, and I tell the other pastors what I've seen, and they don't take action, it gives me such fury," Pastor Costa says. "The church doesn't even know how the state works. They think that politics is necessarily dirty."
Costa leads a growing ad hoc group of church members and nonreligious allies whose goal is to protest violence and address the inequality and neglect behind it in Rio de Janeiro.
The numbers here are staggering: Brazil has the most murders of any country in the world, tallying 43,909 in 2009, ahead of India (40,752) and Russia (15,954). Half a million Brazilians have been murdered in the past decade. The state of Rio de Janeiro has a homicide rate of 30 per 100,000 residents. (By contrast, the global average is less than 7 per 100,000 residents. In New York State the number is 4 per 100,000.)
Police confrontations like the one Costa passed through add to the toll. Rio has averaged one killing a day by police so far in 2012 – and that's down from more than three a day in 2007.
That's why Costa began what has become one of Rio's most respected and visible human rights and protest movements. In a city where political apathy is the norm, Rio de Paz ("River of Peace") has become a regular in the local news media as it calls together volunteers wielding Brazilian flag-colored brooms to protest state corruption. The volunteers also place thousands of crosses and roses across the Copacabana beach to symbolize the number of homicide victims and have had a thousand people lay down in black outfits along the beachside.
After an adolescent boy went missing last July following a police shootout with alleged drug traffickers in the oft-forgotten western suburbs of Rio, Rio de Paz protested for days on end with "Where is Juan?" signs on the beach. The boy's body was found more than a week after his disappearance – dumped in a river near a police station with a bullet in his body that was traced to an officer who already had 13 on-duty killings to his name.