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

Marcos Rodrigo Neves remembers the bad old days in Rocinha, the largest favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro. A baby-faced 27-year-old with a linebacker’s build and close-cropped black hair, Rodrigo grew up dirt poor and fatherless in a tenement in Valão, one of the favela’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Drug-trafficking gangs controlled the turf, and police rarely entered out of fear they could be ambushed in the alleys. “Many classmates and friends died of overdoses or in drug violence,” he told me, sitting in the front cubicle of the Instituto Wark Roc-inha, the tiny art gallery and teaching workshop he runs, tucked on a grimy alley in the heart of the favela. Rodrigo’s pen-and-ink portraits of Brazilian celebrities, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—whom Rodrigo met during the president’s visit to the slum in 2010— and the singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, adorn the walls. Rodrigo might have become a casualty of the drug culture himself, he said, if he hadn’t discovered a talent for drawing.

At 16, Rodrigo began spraying the walls of Rocinha and adjacent neighborhoods with his signature image: a round-faced, melancholy clown with mismatched red and blue eyes. “It was a symbol of the community,” he told me. “I was saying that the political system turned us all into clowns.” He signed the graffiti “Wark,” a nonsense name he made up on the spot. Soon the image gained Rodrigo a following. By the time he was in his late teens, he was teaching graffiti art to dozens of kids from the neighborhood. He also began to attract buyers for his work from outside the favela. “They wouldn’t come into Rocinha,” he said, “so I would go down to the nicer areas, and I would sell my work there. And that’s what made me strong enough to feel that I had some ability.”

In November 2011, Rodrigo hunkered down in his apartment while the police and military carried out the most sweeping security operation in Rio de Janeiro’s history. Nearly 3,000 soldiers and police invaded the favela, disarmed the drug gangs, arrested major traffickers and set up permanent positions on the streets. It was all part of the government’s “pacification project,” an ambitious scheme meant to bring down levels of violent crime and improve Rio de Janeiro’s image ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Rodrigo had deep worries about the occupation, given the Brazilian police’s reputation for violence and corruption. But eight months later, he says that it’s turned out better than he expected. The cleaning up of the favela has removed the aura of fear that kept outsiders away, and the positive publicity about Rocinha has benefited Rodrigo’s artistic career. He landed a prized commission to display four panels of graffiti art at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development last June, and another to decorate downtown Rio’s port district, which is undergoing massive redevelopment. Now he dreams of becoming an international star like Os Gêmeos, twin brothers from São Paulo who exhibit and sell their work in galleries from Tokyo to New York. In a community starved for role models, “Wark” has become a positive alternative to the jewelry-swathed drug kingpin—the standard personification of success in the slums. Rodrigo and his wife have a newborn daughter, and he expresses relief that his child won’t grow up in the frightening environment that he experienced as a boy. “It’s good that people are no longer smoking dope in the streets, or openly carrying their weapons,” he told me.


Brazil is a flourishing democracy and regional superpower, with a robust annual growth rate and the world’s eighth-largest economy. Yet its favelas have remained stark symbols of lawlessness, gross income disparities between rich and poor, and Brazil’s still-deep racial divide. In the 2010 census, 51 percent of Brazilians defined themselves as black or brown, and, according to one government-linked think tank, blacks earn less than half as much as white Brazilians. Nowhere are the inequalities starker than in Rio’s favelas, where the population is nearly 60 percent black. The comparable figure in the city’s richer districts is just 7 percent.

For decades, drug gangs such as Comando Vermelho (Red Command)—established in a Brazilian prison in 1979—and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends), an offshoot, operated a lucrative cocaine-distribution network within the sanctuary of the favelas. They bought off police commanders and politicians and guarded their turf with heavily armed security teams. To cement the loyalty of the favelas’ residents, they sponsored neighborhood associations and soccer clubs, and recruited favela youths by holding bailes funk, or funk parties, on Sunday afternoons. These raucous affairs were often replete with underage prostitutes and featured music called funk carioca, which celebrated drug-gang culture and gang members who had died fighting the police. Bloody internecine wars for control of the drug trade could leave dozens dead. “They would block off the entrances of the alleys, making it extremely dangerous for the police to penetrate the favelas,” I was told by Edson Santos, a police major who conducted several operations in the favelas during the past decade. “They had their own laws. If a husband hit his wife, the drug traffickers would beat him or kill him.”

In 2002, a 51-year-old Brazilian journalist, Tim Lopes, was kidnapped by nine members of a drug gang near one of the most dangerous favelas, Complexo do Alemão, while secretly filming them selling cocaine and displaying their weapons. The kidnappers tied him to a tree, cut off his limbs with a samurai sword, then burned him alive. Lopes’ horrific death became a symbol of the depravity of the drug gangs, and the inability of security forces to break their hold.

Then, in late 2008, the administration of President da Silva decided that it had had enough. State and federal governments used elite military police units to conduct lightning assaults on the drug traffickers’ territory. Once the territory was secured, police pacification units took up permanent positions inside the favelas. The Cidade de Deus (City of God), which had become infamous thanks to an award-winning 2002 crime movie of the same name, was one of the first favelas to be invaded by security forces. A year later, 2,600 soldiers and police invaded Complexo do Alemão, killing at least two dozen gunmen during days of fierce fighting.

Then it was Rocinha’s turn. On the surface, Rocinha was hardly the worst of the favelas: its proximity to wealthy beachfront neighborhoods gave it a certain cachet, and it was the recipient of hefty federal and state grants for urban redevelopment projects. In reality, it was ruled by drug gangs. For years, Comando Vermelho and Amigos dos Amigos battled for control of the territory: Comando controlled the upper reaches of the favela, while Amigos held the lower half. The rivalry culminated in April 2004, when several days of street fighting between the two drug gangs left at least 15 favela dwellers, including gunmen, dead. The war ended only after police entered the favela and shot dead Luciano Barbosa da Silva, 26, known as Lulu, the Comando Vermelho boss. Four hundred mourners attended his funeral.

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.”

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.

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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