Rio kids caught in drugs war crossfire

Parents at an upmarket school in Rio's embattled Rochinha district want its owners to relocate so their children are not killed in the raging drugs war that surrounds it.

Like most of Rio, headmaster Peter Cooper watched in horror as another week of violence unraveled in Rocinha — one of the city's largest slums.
A dispute between rival drug factions finally erupted in the early hours of Good Friday, when a small army led by Eduíno Eustáquio de Araújo—or "Dudu" — attempted to storm the favela.

By Sunday night, seven people had been killed, amongst them police officers, traffickers and four members of the public. By Monday the figure had risen to 10.

Cooper—head of Rio's American School (EARJ, Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro) - www.earj.com.br - which borders on Rocinha—was worried. "We have decided to cancel classes on Monday," he wrote in an emergency statement to parents.


Just a week earlier, police foiled plans to invade Rocinha, using Rua Marquês de São Vincente—the road that passes in front of the school and one of the main points of access to the favela.

"While these confrontations have taken place mainly on the São Conrado side of the hill and while there have been no threats or actions against the school, we believe that we should examine whether any additional measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of our students and staff," read Cooper's statement.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the school — which with its high barbed wire exterior resembles a fortress more than a place of learning — would stay closed until the weekend.

If Rocinha is, as some say, living one of its worst moments in 20 years, the Escola Americana—founded in 1937—has also hit hard times. Last year it was forced to up security, bulletproofing windows, after a series of nearby shootouts between police and drug traffickers.

The school also plans to relocate within the next three years to Barra da Tijuca, a wealthy beachside district, far removed from the favela. Officially the move is unrelated to security. Yet with fees of R$2,500 (US$800) a month, the school's proximity to the conflict in Rocinha is at best embarrassing.

According to O Globo newspaper, some parents are even demanding the school relocate immediately to an empty college in Leblon.

A short walk up the road is Rocinha's Vila Olímpica. The Vila, located in the Umuarama Club, is home to a sports project for Rocinha's younger generations.

Here too the paint-stripped gates are padlocked shut. Though the Rumo Certo (Right Direction) project here was open on Monday, it has since closed again. Teachers who live in Rocinha reported being unable to leave their houses, even to buy bread.

Unlike its neighbours at the EARJ, Rumo Certo will not be relocating to Leblon any time soon. Most of the 700 children enrolled—and many of the teachers—are from the impoverished community of Rocinha and the nearby favela Parque da Cidade (City Park).

The Umuarama Club has housed Rumo Certo since 1999. It sits on the border of two very different neighbourhoods — Rocinha and Gávea — which illustrate well the huge gap between rich and poor in Brazil. In Rocinha you can rent a kitchenette for as little as R$50 (US$16) per month, whilst a house in Gávea will set you back around R$500,000 (US$160,000).

Formerly a sports club for the Zona Sul's high earners, the dilapidated Umuarama complex boasts a 25-metre swimming pool, which now hosts swimming lessons for Rocinha's youngsters.

Visitors to the Rumo Certo website are greeted with a quote from the poet Isabel Borja. "It is he who is able to dribble around bad luck… that wins the game."

Despite the favela currently being occupied by some 1,300 police, one volunteer, who also works at Rocinha's Health Post near Street 1 (Rua 1), said the situation was improving.

"What is happening in Rocinha is perhaps more shocking for people who don't live here or don't have any experience of this violent reality," he said. "But it will pass."

Community leader Paulo César Martins Vieira—one of the project's coordinators—described the situation in Rocinha yesterday as "calm but tense".

It is not yet known when either the American School or Vila Olímpica will reopen. Since the violence began last week, most local schools have closed, leaving some 10,000 children without lessons.