RECIFE/RIO DE JANEIRO – They could have been characters in the same fatal story as Agatha, the 8-year-old girl killed two weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro by a stray bullet during a police operation, but Larissa and Washington, in the “favelas,” or shantytowns, of Recife, had the good luck to grow up in different surroundings.
The city in northeast Brazil, which at the beginning of this century was the most violent state capital in the country with 70 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, chose to adopt the “peace and coexistence” model of neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia, and in recent years has been able to slash that number by half.
Rio de Janeiro, with a policy of repressive security, has reduced homicides so far this year by 21.5 percent compared with the same period in 2018, but at a high price: the number of civilians killed in police operations jumped 16.2 percent in the same period.
Dominated by drug traffickers and paramilitaries, the shantytowns of Rio are full of stories like that of Agatha Felix, 8, who was killed this September by a stray gunshot while arriving from an outing in a van, and the emblematic case of Amarildo de Souza, the construction worker who was arrested and never seen again.
But the shantytowns of Recife tell another kind of story since the “Citizenship Factories,” recently rated by Oxfam Brazil as the country’s best program for reducing inequality, were implemented in the modern Compaz community centers that offer social assistance, libraries, sports and culture.
Larissa Araujo, 11, is a girl living in an environment very similar to that of Agatha in Rio de Janeiro.
But the establishment of Recife’s first Compaz in 2015 in the Alto de Santa Terezinha neighborhood, on a hillside outside the capital of Pernambuco state, has enriched her childhood with ballet and other activities.
“If I didn’t have ballet in the neighborhood I’d stay home and spend all my time on the cell phone,” but with Compaz the children “now settle down to read books at the library, take judo and swimming lessons...” the young ballet dancer told EFE.
With a past living amid crime in Alto de Santa Terezinha that was about to drag him down “the path of evil,” Washington das Neves, 36, has become one of the living examples of self-improvement in the neighborhoods of Recife.
“Establishing Compaz centers all over Brazil is very important because it helps children and teenagers distance themselves from crime. Many youngsters who were going down the wrong road are now Pernambuco champions (of martial arts) and are doing well at school,” the jiu-jitsu instructor and black belt told EFE.
Das Neves believes the original Compaz center, attended in Alto de Santa Terezinha by 14,235 locals, plus the second community center established in 2017 in the Cordeiro neighborhood with another 19,057 regulars, are a useful “tool” in places where “crime is everywhere.”
“Today there are no homicides because the kids have activities that engage them,” Das Neves said.
Alto de Santa Terezinha, which was one of Recife’s most violent neighborhoods and a known lair of bank robbers in the northeast, had not one murder in 2018 nor so far this year.
To achieve such positive results, Recife Urban Safety Secretary Murilo Cavalcanti traveled six years ago to Medellin, “which was the world’s most violent city before undergoing the most extraordinary change.”
It was then that, in cooperation with his Colombian advisors, he set about planning the Compaz community centers to combat “the epidemic of violence.”
Different from the “axis of prevention” employed in Recife, Cavalcanti questioned the hard-line policy employed in matters of citizens’ security by Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wilson Witzel and highly criticized by international organizations.