RIO DE JANEIRO – Dozens of children, teenagers and young adults in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are receiving training in boxing and martial arts thanks to an initiative aimed at steering them away from drug dealing and other criminal activity.
More than 200 people between the ages of seven and 29 – all residents of the Complexo do Alemao complex of shantytowns – are taking part in the “Abraço Campeao” (Champion Embrace) project, whose small and modest but well-equipped gym is located in a vacant lot at the entrance to the Adeus favela, one of 15 that make up that sprawling set of slums on the north side of this southeastern Brazilian metropolis.
A public soccer field provides space for outdoor training sessions, while more than four-meter-high walls provide protection from stray bullets in that crime-ridden district.
The gym was used as a food-distribution point for several months when coronavirus-triggered lockdowns were causing severe economic hardship. Two months ago, its activities resumed with double the number of students.
Rio’s North Zone was the area of the city with the highest number of gunfights in 2019. Around 2,400 exchanges of gunfire took place in that area of the city last year, with 275 – or nearly one per day – occurring in Complexo do Alemao.
Gun battles are triggered by turf wars among rival gangs and clashes between those outfits and the police, a daily vicious cycle of violence that forces the closure of schools, health clinics and commercial establishments and causes the loss of innocent lives from stray bullets.
Young people suffer greatly from the violence and despair, with many dropping out of school, having unintended pregnancies and becoming involved in drug dealing.
“It’s incredible that Elon Musk is thinking about colonizing Mars, and we have people in favelas without basic sanitation, without education. I don’t accept that reality, and all the energy and effort of these units are to change what’s happening within the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil,” Abraço Campeao founder Alan Duarte told EFE.
He said that project is a big family where students find the support and understanding they are missing at home.
The 32-year-old native of the Adeus favela launched the initiative after the murder of his oldest brother, Jackson, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in broad daylight. Nine other members of Duarte’s family also lost their lives due to gun violence.
Duarte, who was abandoned by his father and practically raised by a brother due to his mother’s long work hours, was introduced to boxing as a youth thanks to the work of the international non-governmental organization Luta pela Paz (Fight for Peace) and excelled at the sport.
He walked 40 minutes as a teenager to train at a gym in the Complexo da Mare group of favelas, where he honed his skills and eventually competed in organized bouts in Brazil and in foreign countries such as South Africa and England in the middleweight division.
“When I saw myself in that context, fighting, visiting other countries and getting to know all of Brazil and working at what I loved … I asked myself why these types of projects didn’t exist in Complexo do Alemao,” he said. “I got a hold of three pairs of old gloves and two ragged punching bags and hung them up in the soccer field.”
Six years later, the project is an NGO that has grown and now also operates in the neighboring Penha favela complex.
The project also has become increasingly diverse. Martial arts training is now offered along with boxing, while women currently make up about half of the participants in an initiative that had previously been exclusively male.
Although combat sports are offered, Duarte said they do not promote violence and instead instill values such as discipline, respect, honesty, loyalty, courage, integrity, compassion and honor that spiritually enrich the participants.
The instruction is entirely free of charge and personalized social support is offered to students whose training must be interrupted due to a personal problem.
Duarte said his greatest reward as the head of Abraço Campeao is seeing his students avoid crime and violence, excel in school and set an example for other promising youth.
Most of the funding for the project comes from organizations in other countries that learned about it through the award-winning documentary “The Good Fight,” which was directed by English filmmaker Ben Holman and was screened at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival.
“I was like them. I’ve already felt what’s it’s like to arrive at a place and be welcomed, be treated well and be well guided by the instructors and the team. And now as a coach, I try to do the same,” he told EFE.