Brazil launches shantytown works program

MICHAEL ASTOR, AP, March 7, 2008

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva traveled to a notoriously lawless shantytown to launch a public works project Friday, seeking to improve housing, roads, schools and sewage systems.

The nearly $1 billion program aims to wrest control of slums from heavily armed drug gangs by creating thousands of jobs and bringing an official presence into the squatter settlements that cover most of Rio de Janeiro's hillsides.

The program also seeks to grant land titles to residents, giving many an official address for the first time, as well as the ability to apply for credit and more incentive to invest in their homes.

"I'm tired of seeing Rio on the front page of newspapers as if the city is a symbol of violence and stray bullets, when 99 percent of the people here are honest," Silva told a cheering crowd at in the Alemao shantytown.

"Citizens who are bandits don't have to be treated with rose petals, but the police before coming here have to know that men, women and children also live here," he added.

Last year, the Alemao complex gained notoriety as the site of a monthslong battle between drug gangs and police that claimed at least 38 lives.

The violence culminated in a June police raid involving 1,350 officers that resulted in the killing of 19 alleged drug traffickers.

The violence has subsided, but police remain stationed behind sandbags outsides the slum's principle entrances, and drug gang members with automatic weapons remain a constant presence in Alemao's mazelike alleyways.

But on Friday a spirit of hope edged out fear.

"Here we vote and then we never see the politicians. It's unprecedented for the president to come to Alemao. This day will go down in history," said 29-year-old Roni Charles, who works with the AfroReggae community group that works to steer young people away from violence.

Hundreds of residents, many waving white flags, descended from exposed brick hovels, down narrow alleyways, to hear Silva speak on a makeshift stage set up in a small square.

Samba percussionists warmed up the crowd and a video showed an artist's rendering of the sprawling shantytown transformed into a utopian hillside community filled with wide avenues and an overhead cable car system to carry residents up and down steep hillsides from the commuter train station.

Silva said that in Alemao over 2,000 homes would be replaced and 4,000 would be renovated.

The program would also build new schools, job training centers, a health clinic, post office and create some 2,000 jobs in the community.

Rubem Cesar Fernandes of the Viva Rio anti-violence group said the investment program was an important step toward reducing tensions in a city where about one-fifth of the population lives in shantytowns.

"This is an important sign of the priority given to the urbanization of shantytowns," Fernandes said. "Because social policy is an essential precondition to a security policy."

"I really hope this will improve things. We really need peace and we really need jobs, let's hope we get a little of both from Lula, after all that's why we voted for him," said Roseangela Coutinho, a 31-year-old housewife, referring to the president by his nickname.

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