By Patricia Maresch, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Just six months ago the running trail was the stage of sweeping violence that gripped Rio in November last year. Now, the same dirt road drug traffickers used to escape from the police during the massive police and military operation was part of the 4,850 meter run called Desafio da Paz (Peace Challenge).
A thousand runners, including top athletes, artists, TV-personalities, Elite Squad BOPE officers, politicians and residents and even former drug dealers participated in the highly symbolical running event.
“This is just all very emotional”, said a resident who watched BOPE officers and residents pass by his house, running side by side for fun. A vision he would have thought an impossibility seven months ago.
One of the Elite Squad runners, BOPE officer Sergio Dantas, thinks the sports event is a way to improve security in the area: “This initiative proves not only that the police force is back with peace, but also with sports, leisure, culture, dignity, respect and opportunities.”
The race is run on the same road where fugitives were escaping and pursued on live television. Asked what he felt about running in the race, Dantas answered: “Today, after the pacification, that dirt road shows another scenario: of peace and security.”
The idea to organize the Desafio da Paz came from cultural NGO AfroReggae who wants to rid the favela and its inhabitants of its negative image of violence by promoting peace, respect and social inclusion of all citizens of Rio.
“We all need opportunities in life and the communities need improvements,” says AfroReggae’s coordinator William Reis. “It’s our challenge just as much as it is the challenge of Rio’s politicians to alter the favela’s negative image.” Adding that the Desafio da Paz is not just a one time event: “We plan to organize a lot more of these big events within the favela.”
Governor Cabral, who was cheering for the athletes at the finish line, thought the event was a huge success: “From now on, we not only have the marathons of New York and Rio, but the Run of Alemão will enter the sports calendar as well.”
The Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro have long since been considered among the most dangerous communities in Rio de Janeiro. For years the area was marked by violence: either from clashes between the police and drug traffickers, or between rival drug factions. Residents learned to live with the regular shootings while suffering deeply from the heavy violence.
In November 2010 the communities were overtaken by a special Peace Force whose mission is to stop the drug traffickers that ruled the area from returning, and to prepare the community for the gradual installation of ten UPP stations later this year.
Though the drug dealers have not completely disappeared, most favela residents say they feel a lot safer since the installation of the Peace Force. Also, a whole range of new opportunities has come to the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro since the Peace Force takeover in terms of health care, education and business opportunities.
The Desafio da Paz was won by marathon athlete Franck Caldeira.