Brazil: Ten Years of Viva Rio

(Brazzil Magazine, 14/12/2003)


In December of 1993, citizens of Rio de Janeiro were appalled to learn that a vigilante justice gang opened fire on some 50 street children sleeping on the steps of Candelária Catholic Church in the center of the city. They managed to kill eight. Soon after, another gang of hooded men massacred 21 innocent civilians in a city slum called Vigário Geral.


After some investigation, local authorities revealed the hooded men with guns were members of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro. While off-duty the same individuals paid, trained and equipped to protect Brazilian civilians killed in cold blood.


These two tragedies sparked an outrage in Rio de Janeiro. Never before had Brazilian politicians and police commanders been more embarrassed. In one stroke, they managed to unofficially prove themselves guilty of corruption and brutality with a complete disregard for human rights. They gave confirmation that violence in the city was spiraling out of control. It was clear to the world and the citizens of Rio de Janeiro that the Brazilian state was in dire need of help.


In response to these atrocities, one prominent citizen of Rio de Janeiro, Rubem Cesar Fernandes, founded an anti-violence non-governmental organization (NGO). Viva Rio was founded on the 17th of December, 1993 with a mandate to motivate individuals, businesses, associations, and government officials to construct a more just and democratic society. It was the first of many anti-violence NGOs founded in response to the Candelária and Vigário Geral massacres.


Human rights, public security, community development, education, sports, and the environment are the five foci Viva Rio organized to develop peace campaigns and social projects in the city of Rio de Janeiro. It maintains close ties with the Military and Civil Police command of the state of Rio de Janeiro, and is a consultant for the Ministry of Justice, which oversees security matters in Brazil.


The most established series of projects fall under the public security umbrella, administered by its disarmament team, called Desarmamento (Disarmament). Desarmamento publishes Spanish and Portuguese news about arms control issues on its web site Its research branch works closely with the Ministry of Justice to investigate, draft, publish, and distribute manuals for small arms and light weapon identification, tracking, and stockpile organization.


As an expert on Brazilian gun control and public security law, and the legislation of international firearms and landmine control norms, Desarmamento is a professional resource for government officials, lawyers and others. An outreach program, Balcão de Direitos (Rights Counter), offers legal council in favela communities.


Under its community development umbrella, the Viva Favela (Long Live Shantytown) project works specifically with education and awareness programs in a number of favelas. Viva Cred (Live Credit) operates a micro-finance unit in impoverished and low income communities.


"Armas Não, Ela ou Eu" (No to Guns, the Gun or Me) is a peace campaign designed to inform women about the dangers of the misuse of firearms. Women force their husbands to choose between his gun and his wife. Another female awareness campaign, Beleza (Beauty) is designed to educate women about birth control, domestic violence, and other female issues.


The popular sports project Luta pela Paz (Fight for Peace) heads up the sports branch. Luta pela Paz administers a boxing club and sports facility located in the heart of favela violence. Many of the young members trade their assault rifles for boxing gloves. Students learn about conflict resolution while training for boxing tournaments.


Stray-Bullet Town


Meanwhile, national awareness campaigns such as gun destruction ceremonies and anti-violence marches, promote peace and non violence in a town where a stray bullet kills an innocent person every two days. The last anti-violence march attracted over 50,000 Brazilians. Viva Rio has also worked with Brazilian media giant O Globo to insert anti-violence rhetoric into the script of popular television programs.


The most recent addition to Viva Rio's quiver of projects and campaigns is the Children of Organized Armed Violence project. Its team works specifically with the armed youth who patrol drug gang controlled areas with assault rifles. The projects' cornerstone book, Children and Youth of Organized Armed Violence, raised international awareness for the condition of favela youth, who have little option but to enter organized crime to earn a living.


Viva Rio continues to do good work in Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless death rates continue to rise. Police corruption is rampant. Torture is still regularly used. In these conditions, civil society must bridge the divide between haves and have-nots.


Viva Rio, for all its successes and failures, is a model to anti-violence NGOs in cities worldwide, where violence threatens human security daily. The only real regret about Viva Rio is that the social condition in Brazil's "marvelous city" demands its existence.


It has been almost ten years since the massacre of 28 innocent and poor Brazilians forced Viva Rio into this world. Now thousands of impoverished individuals, who are summarily ignored by state and federal politicians, have a voice. Each year it gets louder. Soon it may be loud enough to reach the politicians who continue to act like it doesn't exist.