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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Even so, Rodrigo’s relationship with his mother is strained. When he married four years ago at 22 and announced that he was moving out of the house, she reacted badly to his declaration of independence. “I was the only son,” Rodrigo told me, “and she wanted us to live with her, in the building that she owns, and take care of it.” But there was more to the rupture than Rodrigo’s lack of interest in maintaining the house. Although social attitudes have changed in Brazilian society, gender hierarchies remain rigidly in place in Rocinha. “You still need a man to be respected. It’s hard for a woman to be alone,” Rodrigo explained. “She felt that I abandoned her.” He admitted that he hadn’t spoken to his mother since his marriage. When my interpreter and I offered to go inside the house and broker a reconciliation, he shook his head. “It’s too late,” he said.

Moments later, we passed three shirtless men loitering in the alley; each was covered with lurid tattoos. The men eyed us warily, then dispersed. Rodrigo explained that they were drug traffickers waiting to conduct a transaction when we showed up. “They didn’t know who you were,” he said. “You might have been tied to the police.” Although the police control the main intersections of Rocinha, and have largely disarmed the drug gangs, the sale of cocaine, methamphetamines, hashish and other drugs in the back alleys of the favela remains brisk.

From the top of the favela, where the houses gradually thinned and gave way to a strip of forest, I could see the entire panorama of Rio de Janeiro: the beach community of Ipanema, Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Christ the Redeemer statue with outstretched arms atop the 2,300-foot-high granite peak Corcovado. Villas of the rich, tantalizing and out of reach, dotted the beachfront just below us. When he was a boy, Rodrigo told me, he would visit a natural spring in this forest, splashing in the cool water and finding a refuge from the dust, heat and crime. Then gunmen from Comando Vermelho laid claim to the forest and it became their getaway spot. “I couldn’t come anymore,” Rodrigo said.


Now that the armed criminals are mostly gone, what is next for Rocinha? Many residents said they expected a “peace dividend”—a flood of development projects and new jobs—but nothing has materialized. “For the first 20 days after the occupation, they introduced all kinds of services,” José Martins de Oliveira told me, as we sat in the tiny living room of his home. “Trash companies came in, the phone company, the power company. People were taking care of Rocinha; then, after three weeks, they were gone.”

In recent years, the government has made attempts to improve the quality of life in the favela. The Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), a $107 million urban renewal project launched in late 2007, has funded a variety of public works. These include a 144-apartment project painted in bright pastels and bordered by parks and playgrounds; a sports complex and public footbridge designed by the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer; and a cultural center and library. But work has slowed or stopped on other projects, including an eco­logical park at the top of the favela, a market and a day care center. Some residents believe that the rush of construction was intended primarily to solidify Rocinha’s support for the 2010 re-election bid of Sergio Cabral, governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, who won handily. In November 2011 the state government pledged another $29 million in PAC money for development of the favela, but activists say they haven’t begun to deliver it. “The climate here is disillusionment,” said Martins.

Instead, the government seems more interested in backing projects aimed at tourists. (Before pacification, some tourists visited the slum in organized “favela tours,” a business grudgingly tolerated by the drug gangs.) A French company recently completed construction of a steel track that winds around the top of the favela, the first stage in a cable-car project that will provide visitors with panoramic views of the sprawling slum and the Atlantic beyond. Critics estimate that it could cost the state more than $300 million. The project has divided the community, pitting a handful of businessmen against the majority of residents who see it as a white elephant. The money, they say, should be spent on more vital projects such as an improved sewer system and better hospitals. Rodrigo says disparagingly that the project will allow tourists “to see Rocinha from above without putting their feet on the ground.”

The true measure of pacification’s success, Martins said, will be what transpires over the next year or two. He fears that if the status quo continues, Rocinha’s residents might even start longing for the days of the narcos: For all their brutality and swagger, the drug dealers provided jobs and pumped money into the local economy. Rodrigo was glad to see the last of the armed gangs, but he, too, has been disappointed. “The police came, they didn’t bring help, education, culture, what the people need,” he told me. “It’s the same thing as before—a group of different gunmen is taking care of this place.” Rodrigo said that the main consequence of pacification has been soaring real-estate prices, a source of deepening anxiety for him. His landlord recently announced plans to double the $350 rent on his studio, which he can’t afford. “I don’t know where I’d go if I get evicted,” he said.


A few days after meeting Rodrigo, I again took a taxi toward the top of Gávea Road, and turned off at the unfinished ecological park. I followed a dirt path through the woods to a cluster of trailers—the command center for the pacification police. Here I met Edson Santos, a rangy, forthright officer who directed the November 2011 operation. Santos took me inside a trailer, where three of his colleagues were monitoring deployment of the police on computers and communicating with them over the radio. At the moment, Santos said, 700 police were stationed in the favela and another 120 would soon arrive. That still wasn’t enough to permanently occupy the alleys where the drug trafficking takes place, but the police had kept a lid on Amigos dos Amigos. “We’ve confiscated hundreds of weapons, and a lot of drugs,” Santos told me, pointing out photographs on the walls of coca paste and rifles seized in recent busts.


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