Sep 18 9:00 AM

Violence catches up with favela peacemaker

Osmar Paiva Camelo in Mare in April.
Sebastian Liste / Reportage by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

As Osmar Paiva Camelo stood at the second-floor window of his community center gazing at the carpet of crooked homes and passageways spread across the valley below, a 16-year-old girl called Thamires sat at a table nearby practicing the flute.

She – like many others – was a member of the Orchestra of Tomorrow, a social project created to give the children of Complexo da Maré, one of the most violent of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, hope and ambition for the future.

It was one of many such projects helped by the residents’ association in the Morro do Timbau district, of which Osmar, 54, was the long-standing president. Bold and determined, the retired policeman accompanied Al Jazeera around Maré when we visited in April to see its “pacification” by thousands of armed troops.

On Monday, an assassin entered that classroom and shot him seven times.

Two paragraphs in Rio’s biggest tabloid, O Dia, announced his death. In a state with 4,000 homicides a year, in a country with 56,000, space to reflect is limited.

But his life and death merits more than a footnote. It was remarkable in its determination to ensure a normal, healthy existence for his family and his community, even in extraordinary circumstances that made that a dangerous pursuit.

Born and raised in Maré – a collection of 16 favelas housing 150,000 people near Rio’s international airport – over the decades he saw his home become a battleground between merciless drug gangs who came to control the everyday lives of residents.

As a young man, he became an officer with Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police but remained living in Maré, returning home each night in his full police uniform – itself an act of insolence against the gangs that were in de facto control of the community.

He raised four children there, in a house akin to a self-built castle, and became one of the most active figures in the community. Once, he constructed a recreation area for children to play football, but it was seized by the gangsters before it could open. His community center, which houses a small library, is bullet-ridden but rarely closed.

He was a vocal supporter of pacification, when police units are installed in favelas once ruled by the gangs. In Maré, where various favelas were controlled by two rival drug gangs and a militia, the situation before the World Cup was considered so dangerous that thousands of troops were sent in instead. “I do not want my children to be raised in the midst of traffickers. I just want less violence,” he said.

Where many others were scared of the consequences of speaking freely, he did not live in fear of the gangsters still lurking in Maré. “I know my life is at risk, but I'm not afraid,” he told us in April. “The traffickers do not like pacification, but I do.”

Police have yet to identify a suspect, but it appears Osmar paid the price for his determination not to be cowed. His death has coincided with an uptick of violence in Rio’s favelas, with the army now set to stay in Maré for a further six months.

Down the passageways of Morro do Timbau, few dare to speak so openly about the demons haunting Maré but many silently share his message.  This week there is blood on the floor of his classroom and the music has been silenced. But there are enough people in Timbau who know the tune to give hope that the orchestra can play on.


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