Run for peace in Rio's former drug trafficker bastion

Nearly 1,500 people Sunday competed in a "Challenge for Peace" run through Rio's Alemao Complex, a cluster of hilltop slums that were a drug trafficker bastion until the military wrested control 18 months ago.

Residents, soldiers, Rio's security secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame and even "ex-narcotraffickers" took part in the five-kilometer (3-mile) race, up the Villa Cruzeiro hills to Morro do Alemao, according to AfroReggae, the cultural group that organized the event.

The runners retraced the escape route used by narcotraffickers during the army assault in November 2010.

"This race lifts the self-esteem of a community that used to live amid a great deal of violence," AfroReggae founder Luiz Fernando, also known as "Teco Rastafari," told AFP.

"It shows that we are capable of organizing such an event in favelas (shantytowns), not just in the southern district (Rio's well-off and tourist area)" said the 57-year-old, who joined the race in steamy 25-degrees Celsius (77-degree Fahrenheit) temperature.

Barefoot or wearing brand sneakers, the runners climbed the narrow mud streets of Villa Cruzeiro as residents cheered them on.

The competitors had to clear a difficult ascent on wet soil then negotiate a nearly vertical drop before reaching Morro de Alemao, which the narcotraffickers used as an execution ground.

"This route marked the history of the military police's Special Operations Battalion. Here there were many firefights with the narcotraffickers. To run today along this path without a weapon is very significant," said 44-year-old sergeant Sergio Dantas. "Before, Vila Cruzeiro was lawless land."

The assault by some 2,700 troops marked a major turning point in the city's decades-long battle against the drug barons who control the area and terrorize its residents, part of an effort to pacify some of the 1,000 hilltop slums, home to more than 1.5 million people -- a third of Rio's population.

Last November, soldiers and police, backed by armored vehicles and helicopters, stormed three other Rio favelas, including famed Rocinha.

The operation widened the security perimeter around Rio's residential and tourist area as Brazil prepares to host the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

"This is a unique union of runners, it is spectacular because here there are also a lot of ignorant people, who know only baile funk (hardcore funk dance parties), who have never been outside the favela because they have no money," said 50-year-old Fernandes.

"Two years ago we witnessed scenes of narcotraffickers fleeing the police, the entire world saw them," said Lucas Margutti, a 34-year-old film director.

"Now we run to bring good energy to these people, because it is not enough to pacify the area, you also have to give them a new life, bring in culture, money. It is an opportunity to bring some hope," he added.

"Rio today shows the whole world that it is possible to change the outlook of some people who do not dream and who expect nothing from life," said Brazilian marathon runner Franck Caldeira, who won the first edition of this race a year ago.

"Today we are striving to ensure that Brazil, in hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, show a positive side, what this marvelous city is really about," he added.

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