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Rio's poor rally at posh beach to protest killings

© AFP / by Sebastian Smith | Residents of some of Rio de Janeiro's poorest neighborhoods hold a demonstration demanding peace in Copacaban beach on July 2, 2017

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - 

Hundreds of residents from Rio de Janeiro's ultra-violent favelas descended on the posh Copacabana beach area Sunday to plead for an end to lethal shootouts between drug traffickers and police.

Against a backdrop of weekly, even daily shootings of innocent people in military-style police operations, the demonstrators said Rio's rich and powerful should stop looking away.

"Coming here is the only way we can get the attention of the authorities," said Sergio da Silva, 52, a member of the community association for Jacare favela, standing with a crowd of 400 on the avenue outside Rio's iconic Copacabana Palace hotel.

"People have a lot of difficulties. It's hard on the children. There are shootouts and people are shot," he said. "There are a lot of children who are lost to the drug traffickers and to using drugs."

Favelas -- poor, mostly unregulated shanty towns dotted around the iconic Brazilian city -- are home to almost a quarter of Rio's population. Many have become ghettoes where outsiders are afraid to enter and whose residents lack many basic rights and services.

Drug traffickers control swaths of the favelas, which often consist of warrens of alleys and small houses on steep hillsides, with difficult access. Police periodically mount raids, and when firefights ensue, stray bullets from assault rifles tear through densely populated areas.

Many favela residents say they fear the police more than the drug gangs.

- 'They shoot out of fear' -

"They're inexperienced and treat people roughly," da Silva said. "They shoot out of fear, but you can't shoot when there are children around."

Amnesty International and other rights groups accuse officers of frequently using torture and extrajudicial killings, while police advocates point out that the officers themselves face huge peril.

More than 80 police officers have died this year in Rio de Janeiro state, in what sometimes can feel like an undeclared war.

Those growing up in the favelas say they are victimized not just by physical danger but by the lack of decent education and basic services, such as sewage treatment.

"Teachers don't want to work there because there is shooting all the time," said recent graduate Matheus Concesao, 20, from Cidade de Deus.

"In my school, I have only one teacher," said Agatha Rodrigues, 19, also from Cidade de Deus, which was made famous by the 2002 movie "City of God."

The head of the Alemao favelas association, Marcos Valerio Alves, 49, said he hoped the unusual appearance of hundreds of favela dwellers in Copacabana would wake people up.

- A different kind of violence -

"You have to think of violence in its wider sense," he said. "A lack of kindergartens is a kind of aggression, a lack of sewage treatment is a form of aggression. So is not having work or education or pastimes."

"Political parties should look at us through different eyes."

As with many of Brazil's woes, part of the blame for the mayhem in favelas lies with corruption.

Unchecked embezzlement ahead of Brazil's hosting of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics bled the state's coffers dry. In June, former governor Sergio Cabral, who led Rio from 2007 to 2014, was sentenced to 14 years in jail for taking bribes and laundering money.

Today, police sometimes lack funds for even daily necessities such as toilet paper and car fuel, while once-ambitious social projects aimed at giving favelas the same level of attention as the rest of the city have largely been axed.

Corruption has also eaten deep into the police ranks, handicapping efforts to bring down traffickers. Just last Thursday, arrest warrants were issued for nearly 100 officers accused of taking bribes from drug dealers, providing protection to them or even renting out weapons.

by Sebastian Smith

© 2017 AFP