Rio de Janeiro mounts 'war on terror'

Gunfights between police and gangs in a bustling Brazilian 'favela' see students at Rio's neighbouring 'American School' running for cover.

A US anti-terrorism programme will provide Rio de Janeiro's American School with bulletproof windows and increased security, after a series of shootouts between police and gangs in a nearby favela.
A favela is a typical Brazilian slum or shanty.

A school representative announced the measures, available to American schools across the world, on Monday, following a weekend of violence in South America's largest slum, Rocinha.

Late last week, Polícia Militar entered the area as part of an ongoing fight against Rio's drug traffickers.

Residents reported hearing machine-gun fire throughout the weekend and parents of students at the American School said bullets passed close to the building on Friday morning.

The police actions are part of a new initiative launched by Rio's Public Security Minister Anthony Garotinho, who hopes to clamp down on the drugs trade by cleansing many of the city's favelas.

Authorities say they have captured 100 kilos of marijuana and arrested dozens of gang members since the operation began.

"The situation is out of control and to try and deny this is to deny reality," admitted Garotinho earlier this year.

But according to some, Rio's former governor is doing little to control the violence.

"It never stops, no matter what they do," said one Rocinha resident who was kept awake for much of the weekend by the sound of gunshots.

The Escola Americana (EARJ) has over 1,000 pupils, including 195 Americans and 142 students from 19 other countries.

Founded in 1937, EARJ underlines the divide between Brazil's rich and poor.

Well-off cariocas (Rio natives or inhabitants) pay up to US$17,000 a year for their children to study at the private school in the wealthy borough of Gávea.


This is more than 20 times what many of Rocinha's 200,000 inhabitants would earn in the same period.

Yet despite the continuing violence, Rocinha's image is changing. As well as being the continent's largest slum, it is also one of the most developed.

Rocinha has two banks, two radio-stations, two bus-routes, two supermarkets, three nightclubs, three of its own newspapers and a website.

The community is even starting to attract foreign students and young professionals.

Doug Fischer, a 38-year-old American student, has lived there on and off for the last two years.

"There is a tremendous sense of community that just doesn't exist somewhere like Copacabana. Young people are moving in because they can live here fairly inexpensively," he says.

Fischer describes Rocinha as "a community of immigrants," and says British and Italian students also live in the area.

"When things are violent they are violent. But is it really that dangerous? I feel safe at any time of day or night," explains the American, who admits to leaving his door unlocked for two weeks recently whilst on holiday.

"I even have to pick up my dog's poop," adds Fischer. "There's a great deal of community pressure."

At the same time a new study portrays inhabitants of the favela as an increasingly powerful consumer group.

Of the 2,500 Rocinha residents interviewed by local television, 56 per cent used the local shopping mall, 23 per cent had a credit card and 93 per cent had a least one television at home.

But from the American School's 12-acre campus, the view is very different.

The sound of gunfire is common in the area and pupils are encouraged to take the bus to school, not walk.

Students say they avoid the school's patio when fireworks are set off to warn Rocinha's 'traficantes' of police entering the favela.

Despite this, academic life goes on. One school representative said that whilst the extra-security measures were put in place it would be business as usual.

A Halloween party last week went ahead without problems.