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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Santos led me down a hill. Our destination was the former home of Nem, now occupied by police. Strategically backed against the cliffs near the top of the favela, Nem’s three-story house was far smaller than I’d expected. There were some signs of affluence—mosaic tile floors, a dipping pool and barbecue pit, a rooftop veranda that, before the raid, had been encased in glass—but otherwise it hardly reflected the tens of millions of dollars that Nem was reportedly worth. Nem’s neighbors had been so taken with stories of his wealth that they tore open walls and ceilings immediately after his arrest, “searching for hidden cash,” Santos told me. He didn’t know if they had found anything.

Nem had owned two other houses in Rocinha, said Santos, but he never ventured beyond the borders of the favela. “If he tried, he would have been arrested and lost all his money,” Santos said. In the months before his capture, the drug kingpin had reportedly become frustrated by the restrictions of his life. Santos told me that he had talked to a man who had been a friend of Nem’s since childhood. “He was coming back from São Conrado [a beach favored by Rocinha’s residents] one day when he ran into Nem,” Santos said, “and Nem told him, ‘All I want is to be able to go to the beach.’”

So far, 28 favelas in Rio have been pacified; the government has targeted another three dozen. The project has not gone entirely smoothly. In July 2012, shortly after I met Santos, drug traffickers shot dead a police officer in her barracks in Alemão—the first killing of a law-enforcement officer in the favelas since the beginning of pacification. Some favela residents wonder whether pacification will continue once the World Cup and the Olympics have come and gone. The police and army have conducted periodic invasions in the past, only to pull out and allow the drug dealers to return. And Brazil’s governments are notorious for lavishing attention—and cash—on poor communities when it’s politically advantageous, then abandoning them. But there are hopeful indications that this time it will be different: A few months ago, Congress passed a law requiring the pacifying police units to remain in the favelas for 25 years. “We are here to stay this time,” Santos assured me. The drug gangs are betting against it. As I walked back down to the Gávea Road to hail a taxi, I noticed graffiti splashed on a wall signed by Amigos dos Amigos. “Don’t worry,” it read, “we’ll be back.”


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