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Violence in a Rio slum turned a suburban pastor into an activist

Antônio Carlos Costa was happy as a pastor in suburban Rio de Janeiro. But violence in a city slum changed his life forever.


Pastor Antônio Carlos Costa leads a Rio de Paz (“River of Peace”) protest over the lack of accountable policing in Niteroi, Brazil.

Jimmy Chalk

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Police helicopters twirl ominously over a favela (slum) controlled by drug traffickers as elite police sharpshooters bang on doors and one by one enter each home in the community. The favela has been the site of weekly police incursions as a growing number of crack cocaine users congregate there and members of Rio's largest street gang move in – pushed out of favelas elsewhere by new police units.

Antônio Carlos Costa, a bespectacled, gray-haired pastor in Converse high-top sneakers, strolls past the cops with a few volunteers from his middle-class church across town and residents of this favela. They decide to take an early lunch to wait out the police operation before returning to their project: cooking nutritious meals for crack addicts in the favela.

"When I come back from a prison or a place like this favela, and I tell the other pastors what I've seen, and they don't take action, it gives me such fury," Pastor Costa says. "The church doesn't even know how the state works. They think that politics is necessarily dirty."

Costa leads a growing ad hoc group of church members and nonreligious allies whose goal is to protest violence and address the inequality and neglect behind it in Rio de Janeiro.

The numbers here are staggering: Brazil has the most murders of any country in the world, tallying 43,909 in 2009, ahead of India (40,752) and Russia (15,954). Half a million Brazilians have been murdered in the past decade. The state of Rio de Janeiro has a homicide rate of 30 per 100,000 residents. (By contrast, the global average is less than 7 per 100,000 residents. In New York State the number is 4 per 100,000.)


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