Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – On a warm Sunday evening in April, Arlinda Bezerra and her 10-year-old grandson were on their way home to Complexo do Alemao – a favela, or slum neighbourhood, on Rio’s north side.
Bezerra, also known as Dona Dalva, had just turned 72 years old, and was celebrating her birthday with family that night. As she and her grandson crossed the street, they were caught in an exchange of gunfire between police and alleged drug traffickers. A stray bullet hit Bezerra in her stomach, and she was rushed to an emergency care unit. She died a few hours later. As news of her death spread, mainly by word of mouth, hundreds of people took to the streets to protest against violence in their neighbourhood and inefficient health care services. Within 24 hours, the emergency care unit had been vandalised, several buses torched and at least two more people killed.
|Rene Silva, the chief editor of “Voz da Comunidade” [Flora Charner/Al Jazeera]
News of Dona Dalva’s death and the subsequent reaction appeared on national television networks like TV Globo and major newspapers like Estado de Sao Paulo. But journalists from these organisations were not present during the events in question. Their main source of information was a small community newspaper based in Complexo do Alemao called Voz da Comunidade.
The story travelled beyond the airwaves and began trending on Twitter. Voz editor-in-chief Rene Silva created the hashtag #naomerecomorrerassassinado, which translates to “I don’t deserve to be murdered”. The tweets were accompanied by portraits of favela residents holding up signs with the statement.
“I think all these advances in internet technology have made free speech more democratic,” Silva told Al Jazeera. “We don’t depend on the big media outlets anymore in order to know what is happening in the world.”
Silva is 20 years old. He created the paper nearly 10 years ago when he was still in grade school. Voz da Comunidade, or Community Voice, focused on the day-to-day issues affecting the sprawling hillside slum and its 200,000 residents. The single-page bulletin was distributed throughout the 16 neighborhoods that form the favela complex. Most of his articles were written at the dinner table in the modest home he shares with his grandparents, uncle and younger brother.
“We were worried at first when he started with this paper,” said his grandfather Luis Silva, an air-conditioning repairman. “We thought it could be dangerous if he snooped around the wrong people.”
For nearly four decades, powerful drug gangs occupied many of Rio’s favelas and established a parallel government and patriarchal system that made the residents dependent on them. Alemao was considered a logistical stronghold for the Comando Vermelho and Terceiro Comando, two of the city’s most powerful gangs.
In late 2007, Brazil won the bid to host the 2014 World Cup and Rio de Janeiro was already a strong candidate to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. As local authorities promoted the city’s postcard landmarks in videos and brochures, the question of security remained a serious concern. Rio was considered one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America at the time, with a homicide rate of 37.8 per 100,000 residents. Many of these victims lived in the city’s favelas.
“When the traffickers were in charge, we all knew we had to live by their rules,” Silva said. “As long as you kept your head down and didn’t cause trouble, you were safe in the community.”
In response to the security situation, the government launched the Police Pacification Campaign, or UPPs, to tackle criminal activity and establish a permanent post inside the neighbourhoods. Authorities would announce the date of a raid, allowing criminals to turn themselves in or flee. Those who remained would face off with Rio’s elite military police squad. Once cleared, rookie police officers would begin patrolling the areas. A small favela called Santa Marta was the first to be pacified in 2008.
Two years later, the Alemao favela complex was the government’s main target for pacification. This time, the presence of the two notorious gangs presented police with greater challenges than during the occupation of Santa Marta.
The battle for Alemao
By this time, Silva was 17 years old. He had moved his publication online, where he launched Voz da Comunidade in August 2010, acting as editor-in-chief. He borrowed a school laptop and recruited two fellow classmates as reporters. His brother, Renato, was the photographer. At the same time, he created the Twitter handle @vozdacomunidade to engage with his new readers. Though a modest operation, they were equipped to cover the issues affecting the community.
On November 28, 2010, three M113 national guard tanks rolled into the favela with thousands of armed police officers. Businesses were closed and homes locked. The battle for Alemao had begun, and Silva and his family were terrified.
“I was awakened by the loud noise of helicopters flying above my house and the popping sound of gun shots,” Silva recalled. “I had heard this in the favela before, but never so many at once. I turned on the television and saw my community being seized by police.”
Hundreds of journalists accompanied the raid, but access soon became restricted when bullets began flying down from the hills. Even with flak jackets and helmets, the situation was too dangerous. One Reuters photographer was injured when a bullet ricocheted and hit his shoulder.
The raid was the news of the day in Brazil. Internationally, major media outlets accompanied the event relying on helicopter images and reaction from the ground. Although Silva was at home and watching the news on television, he could see and hear the shootout and violence right outside his window. As he listened to the reports, he began to notice some inconsistencies in the stories.
He mobilised his staff of three and began live-tweeting details of the police operation. Tweets like, “Intense shootout happening right now in Alemao” were posted on his news feed and reposted by his followers on other forms of social media.
Some of the country’s main media outlets saw the messages and began citing Silva and Voz as the source. Within 72 hours, the police had chased most of the traffickers out of the favela and arrested others. At least four people were killed and several others injured.
Within that same time frame, Voz had gone from 180 Twitter followers to 29,000.
“We just kept tweeting what we were seeing because everyone wanted to know what was happening,” Silva says. “People from outside Brazil, famous people I had never met, began messaging me. I never thought it would get all this attention.”
Voz currently has a staff of nearly 30 people who use Facebook, YouTube and other tools to get their stories out into the world. The site has 130,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 25,000 on Facebook.
Silva has become a local celebrity within his community and in Brazil. He has appeared on soap operas and talk shows, and has even been invited to share his story and experiences abroad. Most recently, Silva delivered a talk at Harvard University during a “Digital Connections” symposium, and also worked with the Harlem-based NGO “Brotherhood Sister Sol” in New York.
In 2012, he was one of four Brazilians selected to carry the Olympic torch in London.
Looking towards the future, Silva has started recruiting contributors in other favelas in Rio and in other in cities throughout Brazil to report for Voz. He has even recruited two contributors in New York who will report on Brazilians living abroad, and help translate some of the site’s stories from Portuguese into English.
The government’s UPP programme has since been implemented in 38 favelas. While the government has hailed it as a success, the campaigns have received mixed reviews.
Protest groups and community reporters like Silva remain wary of police presence in the favelas. They are also seeking additional services like improved health care and better sanitation services in the community. At the end of the day, Silva said his main focus will continue to be reporting on human stories like the tragic death of Dona Dalva, and to bring to light these and other problems that often go ignored outside Alemao.
“This isn’t about me or about any individual,” Silva said. “It’s about making the voice of the people heard.”
Follow Flora Charner on Twitter: @FloraCharner