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As Olympics loom, violence flares in Rio’s slums, even those termed ‘pacified’

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As the Rio Olympics approach, a major issue has been security in a city where violence has long plagued hundreds of slums. The bloody reality was all-too-familiar to AP’s Rio staff: stories of children caught in the crossfire of drug traffickers fighting for territory, claims that police were killing indiscriminately or were even being hunted themselves by criminals. And many of these things were happening in areas that had supposedly been “pacified” under a community policing program.

Even though many slums are no-go areas for reporters, AP wanted to analyze what was happening and to show it visually. With extensive pre-reporting outreach and prep work, and with fearless forays that exposed them to gunfire and a carjacking, Felipe Dana, Yesica Fisch and Adriana Gomez Licon did just that. Their startling, up-close, all-formats story earns the Beat of the Week.

To gain the confidence of drug traffickers who control the slums, photographer Felipe Dana, a native Brazilian who has covered violence in slums for years, made many visits _ without his cameras _ to explain what he was after.

To gain the confidence of drug traffickers who control the slums, photographer Dana, a native Brazilian who has covered violence in slums for years, made many visits _ without his cameras _ to explain what he was after. He worked closely with fixer and taxi driver Alan Lima, who has many contacts in slums.

Dana and Fisch, senior video producer, did the same with police forces, eventually persuading an investigative unit to let them go with them to crime scenes. Correspondent Gomez Licon cast her reporting net wide, talking to experts, analyzing data from the state and from non-governmental organizations, and interviewing a mother whose son had recently been shot and killed by police.

The reporting was fraught with danger. One afternoon, Dana and Fisch got caught in a firefight between drug traffickers and police, who were conducting an operation in the massive Alemao complex of slums, which had supposedly been pacified. Riveting video captures the terrifying rooftop shootout.

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One evening, when Dana and Lima were returning from a slum in northern Rio, they were carjacked. Three armed men in a vehicle pulled up next to their car, ordered them out and after a heated discussion with guns drawn, drove off with it. Dana said the men initially believed the journalists were undercover police, a misunderstanding that could have led to their being executed. Fast talking by Dana convinced them they were in fact journalists.

Such frightening incidents were “trial-by-fire challenges” for Peter Prengaman, who had only recently taken over as Brazil news director. In consultation with managers on the Latin America desk, he imposed new security protocols: No going to favelas at night, and none of the reporters would go out alone. In addition, he added: “I would know where they were at all times via Whatsapp.”

The package, which included a print story, a separate photo gallery, several versions of the video and a blog with Dana’s first-person account of covering slums, got great play worldwide. For example, just a 59-second version of the video, posted on the AP’s Facebook page, got nearly 18,000 views.

G1, one of the largest conglomerates in Latin America with hundreds of its own reporters all over Brazil, ran Dana’s photos on its home page. On UOL Noticias, another large portal, the gallery was shared more than 15,000 times. It spurred conversations about the violence, failed pacification programs and the role of evangelical churches in the slums (one of Dana’s photos shows a pastor praying with armed teens).

It spurred conversations about the violence, failed pacification programs and the role of evangelical churches in the slums.

In the run-up to the Olympics, the AP has sought to do cross-format enterprise that is distinctive and illuminating, including a rigorous, newsbreaking investigation of water pollution in Rio and other stories.

For braving serious risks to add to that accountability coverage with an eye-opening chronicle of Rio’s violence, Dana, Fisch and Gomez Licon share this week’s $500 prize.

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