By Matthew Elliott, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Acclaimed Brazilian NGO, Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, has been the target of violent attacks recently, allegedly from drug trafficking gangs, prompting an outcry of public support. The organization has played an iconic role in Rio’s fight for cultural identity and social inclusion for the 22 percent of Rio that live in favela communities, and beyond.
AfroReggae is internationally recognized for its work in combating violence through social, musical and cultural projects to keep young people away from drug trafficking. The organization was established in January 1993 in Rio’s Vigário Geral neighborhood as a non-profit newspaper for black culture and the communities of the favelas.
Since then it has expanded its reach from the small base in Zona Norte (North Zone) into the massive Complexo do Alemão favela, and Cantagalo-Pavão-Pavãozinho in Zona Sul (Zona Sul), as well as conducting projects in other parts of Brazil. The 2005 documentary Favela Rising showed the organization’s origin and helped to gain world-wide recognition.
However, the work of AfroReggae is not appreciated by everyone in the favelas, as the organization has been attacked four times recently. Earlier this month the group headquarters in Vila Cruzeiro were subjected to gunfire from two assailants on motorcycles in what head coordinator José Junior described as “an attack perpetrated by drug traffickers against AfroReggae.”
The attack had occurred only a day after the group took up its activities in Complexo do Alemão after having stopped due to death threats. Also, in July an arson attack had destroyed the NGO’s pousada in Complexo Alemão, shortly before its inauguration as the group planned to house volunteers from other states in the building.
In May the group’s running competition, “Desafio da Paz” (Peace Challenge), was interrupted by gunfire before its start. It is not known if these incidents are directly connected, but it has been a violent period for the NGO.
Now, a campaign has been launched in support of AfroReggae and the pacification project across Rio, named Deixam o Rio em Paz (Leave Rio in Peace). Employing social networking, video links and media outreach, the campaign has received over 100 million shares and enjoys the support of a wide variety of artists, entrepreneurs, athletes, professionals, and social organizations.
UNESCO have also published an open letter of solidarity. In a statement issued to O’Globo last week and signed by over a hundred participants, the campaign says the attacks on the NGO and the threats to its coordinator, José Junior, endanger the peace process initiated by pacification.
“Death threats to your coordinator and other members, trying to expel the NGOs in Complexo do Alemão, amid attacks on its facilities and the Challenge of Peace event, require immediate mobilization of the whole of society. Facts like these have no place in Rio de Janeiro,” says the manifesto, which won the backing of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who posted a video testimony on the NGOs’ website.
Celebrated Brazilian director Carlos Diegues voiced his concerns stating “Society must protect José Junior and embrace the cause of AfroReggae, as if embracing and protecting herself. If we are not capable of it, we do not deserve to live in a just society.”
AfroReggae have played a particularly significant role in facilitating the pacification process in Alemão with José Júnior himself mediating during the 2010 battle for state control of the favela complex. Unfortunately other violent acts against the NGO have also made headlines in the past, such as the 2009 murder of Evandro João da Silva, another coordinator of Afroreggae.
The area of Complexo do Alemão is a sprawl of interconnected favelas communities home to around 70,000 people, and was once one of Rio’s most violent places. It was the scene of a massive pacification operation in 2010, followed by years of army occupation. Since then violence has been dramatically reduced, although clashes between traffickers and police continue to affect progress.