A Look Into Brazil’s Makeover of Rio’s Slums

The Brazilian government’s bold efforts to clean up the city’s notoriously dangerous favelas is giving hope to people who live there

Marcos Rodrigo Neves says that his passion for creating street art saved him from gangs and drugs. (Claudio Edinger)
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Power passed to Amigos dos Amigos, led in Rocinha by Erismar Rodrigues Moreira, or “Bem-Te-Vi.” A flamboyant kingpin named for a colorful Brazilian bird, he carried gold-plated pistols and assault rifles and threw parties attended by Brazil’s top soccer and entertainment stars. Bem-Te-Vi was shot dead by police in October 2005. He was succeeded by Antonio Bonfim Lopes, otherwise known as Nem, a 29-year-old who favored Armani suits and earned $2 million a week from cocaine sales. “He employed 50 old ladies to help manufacture and package the cocaine,” I was told by Major Santos.

But Jorge Luiz de Oliveira, a boxing coach and battle-scarred former member of Amigos dos Amigos, who served as one of the drug kingpin’s top security men, said that Nem was misunderstood. “Nem was an exceptional person,” Luiz insisted. “If somebody needed an education, a job, he would get it for them. He helped everybody.” Luiz assured me that Nem never touched drugs himself or resorted to violence. “He was an administrator. There are bigger criminals running around—like ministers, big businessmen—and they are not arrested.”

Unlike with the City of God and Complexo do Alemão, the occupation of Rocinha proceeded largely without incident. Authorities positioned themselves around entrances to the favela days in advance and ordered gunmen to surrender or face fierce reprisals. A campaign of arrests in the days leading to the invasion helped to discourage resistance. Around midnight on November 10, 2011, federal police, acting on a tip, stopped a Toyota on the outskirts of the favela. The driver identified himself as the honorary consul from Congo and claimed diplomatic immunity. Ignoring him, police opened the trunk—and found Nem inside. Three days later, police and soldiers occupied Rocinha without firing a shot. Today Nem sits in a Rio prison, awaiting trial.


It is only a 15-minute taxi ride from the wealthy Leblon neighborhood by the ocean to Rocinha, but the distance spans a cultural and economic gap as wide as that between, say, Beverly Hills and South Central Los Angeles. On my first visit to the favela, my interpreter and I entered a tunnel that cut beneath the mountains, then turned off the highway and began to wind up the Gávea Road, the main thoroughfare through Rocinha. Before me lay a tableau at once majestic and forbidding. Thousands of brick and concrete hovels, squeezed between the jungle-covered peaks of Dois Irmãos and Pedra de Gávea, were stacked like Lego bricks up the hills. Motorcycle taxis, the main form of transport in Rocinha, clogged the main street. (The mototaxi business was, until November 2011, tightly controlled by Amigos dos Amigos, which received a sizable percentage of every driver’s income.)

From nearly every utility pole hung a bird’s nest of wires known as gatos—or cats—illegally strung by locals to provide people with cheap electricity and phone service. It is estimated that about 20 percent of Rocinha’s population benefits from the gatos, though the number has dropped since pacification. Signs of the new era were ubiquitous: Black-uniformed military police officers and blue-uniformed forestry police, all armed with automatic weapons, stood guard at the entrance to nearly every alley. The community had strung a banner over the Gávea Road: “Welcome to Rocinha. The danger now is that you may never want to leave.”

Rocinha (the name means “Little Farm”) began taking shape about 90 years ago. Poor black migrants from the northeastern state of Ceará, one of Brazil’s least-developed and most drought-stricken regions, began to occupy a sugar-cane and coffee plantation on the outskirts of Rio. The migration picked up during the worldwide depression of the 1930s and never slowed. “In 1967, it was all wooden shanties, half as big as today,” I was told by José Martins de Oliveira, a community activist who migrated from Ceará that year. Bit by bit, a permanent community took shape: In the early 1970s, following a three-year struggle, the state government began to pipe municipal water into the favela. “We formed an association, and we learned that we could fight for our rights,” said Martins, now a 65-year-old with shoulder-length white hair and an Old Testament gray beard. Rocinha expanded up the hillsides: Structures of brick and concrete replaced flimsy wooden shanties; utility companies introduced electricity, phone lines and other basic services. Today, Rocinha has a population of between 120,000 and 175,000—an official census has never been taken—making it by far the largest of Rio de Janeiro’s roughly 1,000 favelas.

According to the Organization of Civil Society in Rocinha, a social welfare group, only 5 percent of the favela’s population earns more than $400 a month, and more than half its adults are unemployed. Eighty-one percent of working residents have low-paying jobs in service industries, such as hair salons and Internet cafés. The illiteracy rate for those over age 60 is nearly 25 percent. The level of education, while improving, is still low: One-quarter of youths between the ages of 15 and 17 are not in school.

One morning in the favela, Rodrigo took me on a tour of Valão, where he had spent most of his childhood. We walked down alleys lined with cheap cafés, bars and hair salons, and turned into Canal Street, which had a deep channel running down the center of the road. Gray, stinking water cascaded from the top of the favela, carrying the waste of countless families toward its Atlantic Ocean dumping ground. We climbed a stone staircase that wound through a warren of houses, packed so tightly together that they cut off almost all natural light. “This is the worst neighborhood of the city,” he said. He gestured to an unpainted hovel sandwiched between other buildings on a lightless alley. I could hear the sound of gushing water from the nearby sewer. The stench of raw sewage and fried food was overpowering. “This is my mother’s house,” he said.

Rodrigo’s mother, who cleaned houses for the affluent in Ipanema and Leblon, threw his father out when Rodrigo was a baby because of his chronic philandering. “He had a lot of women,” he told me. “He asked her to take him back, but she said no, even though she was totally in love with him before.” He has met his father only twice since then. His mother initially looked down on Rodrigo’s graffiti as “dirtying the walls.” When he was 18, she secured him a highly sought-after slot in the air force. “Friends would go to the air force, the army, and learn how to use guns, and come back to join the drug gangs,” he told me. “I explained that to my mother, but she didn’t understand. She got angry at me.” He lasted a week in boot camp. “I didn’t want to salute. I am not the obedient type,” he explained. When he quit, his mother was heartbroken, but she came to accept her son’s choice. Now, said Rodrigo, “she sees me as an artist.”


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