By Patricia Maresch, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – For baby Wanderson, a newborn from Complexo do Alemão, it’s his first Christmas. For little Wanderson’s mother it’s her first Christmas without gifts from the drug traffickers of Comando Vermelho at the Complexo do Alemão. “I never liked it when they were giving away bikes, washing machines or dvd players,” says Wanderson’s mother, “but refusing a Christmas gift would be like signing a death sentence.”
This year at the Complexo do Alemão in Rio’s Zona Norte (North zone), gifts will be handed out by cultural NGO AfroReggae and Banco Santander. Since May this year the bank has been holding office at the Favela da Grota at the Complexo do Alemão.
Banco Santander also helped set up a twenty meter high Christmas tree with 48,000 LED-lights. The tree stands at a square in the favela Morro do Adeus and was lit last Sunday during a celebration with fireworks witnessed by a group of 5,000 residents.
It seems some businesses are finding their way to the Zona Norte for the first time. This past week Caixa bank also opened a branch at the Complexo do Alemão, as well as a lottery office and three ATM-stations. Right after the police takeover of Vila Cruzeiro in Complexo da Penha, dozens of sales representatives of satellite TV company Sky were handing out leaflets at the main entrance of Vila Cruzeiro with special offers for the favela inhabitants.
Favela residents used to have illegal TV and internet connections, which was distributed by the drug gangs and offered at a relatively low price. The police dismantled the clandestine operation that provided internet in Vila Cruzeiro. “We wanted to be part of regular society, so now we have to pay a little bit more to go online,” jokes 19-year-old Luis. Adding that he thinks it is great that they now have a Sky-box at home because it’s “something normal people have.”
On Tuesday, President Lula paid Complexo do Alemão a visit for the inauguration ceremony of the cable car, the first system of mass public transportation by cables in Brazil. Lula was the first passenger on board a gondola. The system has 154 gondolas with the capacity to carry 3,000 passengers per hour and has six stations in the community. The cable car is built with funds from the PAC initiative, Brazil’s Growth Acceleration Program.
At the Complexo do Alemão, Lula had a brief meeting with forty representatives of Mulheres da Paz (Women of Peace). The group told Lula that there still is a lot of fear in the favelas of Zona Norte. Mothers are afraid to leave their children at home because of police misconduct, and they’re scared that the drug traffickers will return. “We are afraid that this situation will not last,” said one of the women. But the government says they have no intention to leave the Complexo do Alemão.
Until recently the drug traffickers were the law inside the favela. Whenever there were disputes between neighbors or family members the drug traffickers settled them. To change this situation, the Ministry of Justice installed the Community Justice Program. A team of thirty professionals in the fields of law, psychology and social work will start working as mediators at the Complexo do Alemão.
“It’s an initiative that will facilitate dialogue between formal law and the rules of community dynamics. It fits well in areas where relationships are changing”, explains Peter Strozenberg, undersecretary of Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. The team will start their work beginning of February 2011.
There seems little doubt that this holiday season is a happier one for most residents of Zona Norte favelas, and that the future looks promising. Of course the situation has it’s detractors, and next year will be pivotal in Rio’s efforts to improve the standard of living for some of its less fortunate citizens.