Published On: July 11, 2017

App Tracks Rio Gun Battles

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Gun violence is on the rise in Rio de Janeiro, with the sound of firefights echoing daily across Brazil’s seaside city as drug gangs battle each other and battle police officers patrolling the favelas. Rio residents witness an average of 15 gun battles a day. The violence has increased so rapidly this year that even the locals are getting nervous.

In an effort to calm residents and improve the quality of life, a group has developed an alert system that tracks where the gun battles are occurring. The tracking works in real-time, where it can do the most good and is based on eyewitnesses, media, and police accounts.

“The idea emerged in December 2015,” project creator Benito Quintanilha said. “I saw a news report about someone hit by a stray bullet in a Rio neighborhood and I thought why not create a website, a means to alert the Rio population about where there are shootouts.”

After launching the effort via Facebook, the 41-year-old oil worker found himself overwhelmed by the task and sought help from two friends, physicist Marcos Vinicius, and programmer Denis Colli. Henrique Caamaño joined the team later.

 

Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

 

The gun violence alerts, which now circulate on Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram as well as Facebook, reach nearly 3 million people, almost half the population of Rio de Janeiro. To prevent false alarms, the group maintains strict operational standards and relies on a network of trusted informants across the city.

Marcos Vinicius recalls proudly a message the team received from grateful parents who called them “guardian angels” after an alert allowed one of their children to avoid getting caught in the middle of a shootout.

Now, Amnesty International, using the information provided by the alerts, has created a phone app called Fogo Cruzado. While Rio is accustomed to random gunfire in or close to its favelas, the city has been stunned by a recent increase of stray bullets hitting innocent bystanders – including a baby boy struck last week while still in his mother’s womb.

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“Our job here is not to denounce anyone. We do not have a direct focus on the police or on the drug gangs,” Henrique Caamaño, a volunteer who helps maintain the free app, said this week. “Our focus is really to get people out of the way of stray bullets.”

Murders jumped 11 percent to 2,329 in Rio de Janeiro state in the first five months of this year compared to the same period last year. The number of people killed by police in shootouts during the first five months of this year jumped nearly 50 percent compared to the same months the previous year, totaling 480 deaths.

However, Rio state authorities do not keep track of the number of people hit by stray bullets, saying that since no such category of crime exists in Brazil’s legal system, authorities would not be able to come up with an accurate way of measuring it. However, the number of stray-bullet reports in Rio’s local press has been rising along with the overall increase in violence.

On Friday, June 30, Claudineia dos Santos, who was nine months pregnant, was struck by a stray bullet that also hit the spine of her unborn boy, Arthur. Police and drug gangs had been in a firefight in the northern Rio slum where Claudineia lives. After an emergency cesarean, doctors said the boy was on life support and left a paraplegic. The mother is in stable condition. On the same day, a 76-year-old woman and her 42-year-old daughter were killed by stray bullets in northern Rio’s Mangueira favela, as police and drug gang members exchanged fire.

[Research for this article comes from Reuters and the Latin American Herald Tribune]

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