Reinventing Rio

The dazzling but tarnished Brazilian city gets a makeover as it prepares for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games

People of every income level and skin color mix comfortably on Rio's gorgeous beaches like here at Ipanema-Leblon. (Eduardo Rubiano Moncada)
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In the late 1980s, Colombian cocaine traffickers opened new routes to Europe through Brazil. Homegrown gangsters stepped in to supply the local market, much of it found among the young and wealthy of the South Zone. Soon, protected by heavy weapons, they set up their bases inside the favelas.

The response of the state government, which is in charge of security, was largely ineffective. Police would carry out raids, engage in furious gun battles with traffickers—kill some, arrest others—then leave. With most drug gangs linked to one of three organized crime groups, Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) and Terceiro Comando Puro (Pure Third Command), favela residents were routinely terrorized by bloody turf wars.

The reputation of Rio’s police was little better. Many were thought to be on the traffickers’ payroll. A December 2009 report by the New York City-based Human Rights Watch accused police officers of routinely executing detainees they claimed had been killed resisting arrest. In some favelas, police have driven out the traffickers—only to set up their own protection rackets.

Fernando Gabeira is one politician with direct experience of urban warfare. In the late 1960s, having joined leftist guerrillas fighting Brazil’s military dictatorship, he participated in kidnapping the American ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick. Elbrick was released after he was swapped for political prisoners, while Gabeira was himself arrested and then freed in exchange for another kidnapped foreign diplomat. When Gabeira returned to Brazil after a decade in exile, he was no longer a militant revolutionary and soon won a seat in Congress representing the Green Party. Having narrowly lost in Rio’s mayoral elections in 2008, he plans to challenge Sérgio Cabral’s bid for re-election as state governor in October.

“The principal characteristic of the violence is not drugs, but the occupation of territory by armed gangs,” Gabeira said over lunch, still dressed in beach clothes. “You have 600,000 to 1 million people living in favelas outside the control of the government. And this is the state government’s responsibility.” Like many experts, he rejects the automatic link between poverty and violence. “My view is that we should combine social action and technology,” he said. “I suggested we use drones to keep an eye on the traffickers. I was laughed at until they shot down a police helicopter.”

The downing of the helicopter last October took place just two weeks after the city was chosen to host the 2016 Olympics, following Governor Cabral’s assurances to the International Olympic Committee that army and police reinforcements would guarantee the security of athletes and the public. After the helicopter was shot down, Cabral threw his weight behind a new strategy designed by the state’s security secretary, José Beltrame.

Starting in the South Zone, Cabral ordered the state government to establish a permanent police presence—so-called Police Pacification Units—in some favelas. After police were met by gunfire, they began a policy of leaking to the media which favela they would next target, giving traffickers time to leave and, it soon transpired, to invade favelas farther inland.

One morning I visited Pavão, Pavãozinho and Cantagalo, a three-community favela overlooking Copacabana and Ipanema, which has been peaceful since this past December. First settled a century ago, the favela has a population estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. A cable car built in the 1980s takes residents up the slope and returns with garbage in cans. It has a primary school, running water and some drainage. For years, it was also a drug stronghold. “There were constant gun battles,” recalled Kátia Loureiro, an urban planner and financial director of a community organization called Museu de Favela. “There were times when we all had to lie on the floor.”

Today, heavily armed police stand at the favela’s entrance, while others patrol its narrow alleys and steep steps. After visiting the local school and a boxing club, I came across the Museu de Favela, which was founded two years ago to empower favela residents to develop their community and improve living conditions. Even during the bad times, it organized courses to train cooks, waiters, seamstresses, craftsmen and artists. Now it offers tours of its “museum,” which is what it calls the entire favela. Says the group’s executive director, Márcia Souza: “The idea is, ‘My house is in the favela, so I am part of the museum.’”

My visit began with a rooftop performance by Acme, the stage name of a local rapper and Museu founder. “We don’t need more cops,” he told me, “we need more culture, more rap, more graffiti, more dance.” The Museu sees social exclusion, not violence, as the problem in the favelas.


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