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NEWS FEATURE Slum violence: Rio de Janeiro's other face By Isaac Risco, dpa

Europe
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Not far from Rio‘s Olympic facilities, gangs, shootings and rough justice are all part of daily life.

Rio de Janeiro (dpa) - As the visitors approach, a thin young man in shorts and flip-flops appears in a dusty alley carrying something in his hands.

He motions from afar and suddenly it becomes clear what he is holding: a gun.

It is common to see weapons in the Alemao Complex, an immense hillside slum neighbourhood in Rio‘s north.

From the hill on which the complex is perched, a large part of the Brazilian metropolis is visible, including the far-off outline of one of the stadiums where the Rio 2016 Olympics will soon be held.

The youth asks the visitors for identification and then takes them to the rest of his gang.

The gang leader, sitting on the stoop of a doorway stroking a red and black lizard, smiles.

The closest station of the Pacifying Police Units (UPP), the body created in 2008 to combat violence in Rio‘s favelas, is just 300 metres below.

"The police harass us sometimes," said an 18-year-old using the pseudonym Paulo Silva, who is a member of the "Comando Vermelho" - Red Command - one of the gangs that controls drug trafficking in the favelas.

Police have wounded him three times, Silva said, showing the scar left by a bullet in his chest.

Violence in outlying neighbourhoods has been ongoing for decades in Rio, Brazil‘s most famous city with 6.5 million residents.

The Alemao Complex slums were for years considered to be one of the most violent areas in the city.

In recent years officials say the UPP has managed to reduce rates of violence in more than 200 Rio slums.

But now, on the eve of the Olympic Games, crime and violence are once again rearing their heads.

"Our greatest problem right now is security," slum resident Camila Silva said. "There are shootings every day."

She has joined other activists in a small demonstration outside the complex to protest the authorities‘ inaction. There has been a shooting on the hill, and residents are speaking of a wounded police officer.

"The Brazilian state communicates with the favelas through the police," resident Raul Santiago said.

As the world focuses on Rio, Santiago said, the phenomenon has intensified, and he accused authorities of a pre-emptive crackdown in the weeks ahead of the Olympics.

"Now with the Olympic Games, police operations have increased. More innocent peple have died - police and residents. It is a war - the war on drugs - that only increases the violence," the 27-year-old activist said.

During the protest, residents toss papers bearing the names of the deceased into a cardboard coffin.

Camila Silva‘s 6-year-old daughter wears a T-shirt bearing the words, "I don‘t want to die without studying."

Some 645 civilians were killed in police operations in Rio in 2015, according to Human Rights Watch.

And just a few weeks ahead of the Olympic Games, which run from August 5 to 12, Rio‘s violence problem has returned to the international spotlight.

It is unknown whether the estimated 700,000 visitors, 12,000 athletes and dozens of heads of state expected for the Games will notice.

As in other major Latin American cities, Rio‘s violence is mostly concentrated in certain outlying areas and is barely visible in better-off neighbourhoods.

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil has already shown it can successfully put on a major sporting event.

The wars between drug-dealing gangs, militias who control the slums and the police are not expected to affect the Olympic facilities in Barra de Tijuca, or in the neighbourhoods of Copacabana, Deodoro or Maracana.

However, the Olympics nonetheless come at a moment of crisis for Brazil, which is in the middle of a deep recession and political and institutional turmoil.

In recent weeks, police have gone on strike over unpaid salaries. "Welcome to hell," reads a sign in English carried by police in the city‘s airport, warning visitors that they might not be safe.

The members of the Comando Vermelho feel safe in the Complexo Alemao.

"We make sure everything is peaceful," said Paulo Silva, his hair in dreadlocks and his teeth in a retainer, as he strolls among homes whose walls are marked by bullet holes from past battles with police.

"If someone has a problem, he can talk to the president of the residents‘ association and he will come to tell us who the problem is," he said.

"After that, we go to see the person, who can pay with his life," he said.

"If you steal, you die," he said, reciting one of the gang‘s rules.

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