rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

The military occupation of Rio’s slums


Rio favelas in Brazil

With the morning still dark and most residents still sleeping, the troops moved in. Special forces police, navy commandos, armoured military vehicles and helicopters all swooped in a carefully-planned operation. They had been surrounding Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela for four days and this was the climax of their operation. They had warned the 70,000 people living in Rocinha that this moment would come and the authorities were heavily-armed, ready for any resistance.

As they quickly spread through the slum, the troops met very little opposition. Some locals watched from their windows as their neighbourhood was occupied by the government and some women were reportedly seen crying. But at six o’clock in the morning the chief of military police declared that Rocinha was now under his control. Not a single shot had been fired.

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

This was less than two months ago (November 2011) and now here I was, walking through the favela that for decades had been the stronghold of criminal gangs and druglords. People looked at me as they stood in doorways, hung out of windows or hurried past on the footpath. “It’s been pacified and you’ll have no problems there at all”, our guide Marcelo Armstrong had told us as we drove out of the relative safety of tourist-filled Copacabana Beach. I was hoping he would be right.

Marcelo has been running tours to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro for years. He worked with the local residents to get their approval, keen to make the experience a beneficial one for both parties. His idea, supported by the favela leaders, was to show the reality of life in the shanty towns so people would judge them for what they are, not what is reported in the media.

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

What are Rio’s favelas like?

The communities have a reputation for being dirty, dangerous, and filled with crime. The truth is that there are over 950 favelas in Rio and more than 20 per cent of the city’s population lives in one of them. The majority of these people are law-abiding and respect their belongings and their neighbours – they just can’t afford to live anywhere else. This is their home not because they want to be part of the drug trade or aligned with the criminal elements but because they need a roof over their heads and somewhere to call their own.

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

“The favelas are safe”, Marcelo explains. “When the drug lords are in control they want no trouble because it will bring in the police. And if people going in to buy drugs are robbed then there will be no more customers.”

What about when the military police are in charge? “Well then the streets are also safe… but for a different reason.”

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

About 20 favelas have been pacified by the authorities in the past few years. There is an overwhelming police presence in Rocinha at the moment while the authorities work to set up a permanent base on the community. Trucks drive along the two streets of the favela with at least four special forces soldiers in the back, carrying large automatic weapons. Police on motorbikes also patrol the area with equally large guns. Regular police and their patrol cars are stationed at the entrances. For a resident, there is no escaping the constant reminders of who is now running the show in town. For a visitor like me, it’s confronting to see such a show of firepower and authority.

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

rio de janeiro, favela, pacified, brazil, favela tour

During November’s siege, police arrested alleged drug kingpin Antonio Francisco Lopes Bonfirm trying to escape in the boot of a car (despite an apparent bribery attempt of more than half a million dollars). It was a big success for the government in its attempt to clean up the favelas. But there is still a lot of stigma associated with the people who live in these haphazard collections of unplanned and unauthorised communities.

* You can find out more here about a tour of Rio’s favelas.

Check out Part Two: Life in one of Rio’s favelas

  • The military occupation of Rio's slums – Time Travel Turtle | The Military Site | Jan 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm

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  • Rease | Jan 5, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Part two? Seriously Michael?!

    Will you also address the people´s reaction to your presence and your camera?
    Rease recently posted..The Not So Magical Florida WildlifeMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 5, 2012 at 8:41 am

      Of course there’s a part two! I had far too many photos for just one post 🙂
      And now that you’ve made a request for content – yes, I will address it! Anything for you!

  • The Travel Fool | Jan 6, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Great article. We hear a lot about what is going on there but it is good to get a first hand experience.
    The Travel Fool recently posted..5 Essentials For Your Carry OnMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 8, 2012 at 12:37 am

      Yeah, i think it would be too easy just to believe what we’re told, without trying to see it firsthand.

  • Eurotrip Tips | Jan 6, 2012 at 1:45 am

    Interesting. People often forget the darker side of Brasil in favor of the glitzy, glamour beaches. I’m surprised at how well it seems to work, though!

    • Turtle | Jan 8, 2012 at 12:37 am

      It’s like any community I suppose. It works because it needs to.

  • Andrea | Jan 7, 2012 at 2:30 am

    Excellent post! I was wondering about these tours and how the locals felt about them. Thanks for sharing this information.
    Andrea recently posted..My Favourite Melbourne RestaurantsMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 8, 2012 at 12:41 am

      I was really concerned about being voyeuristic or seeming condescending by doing a tour. So it was comforting to hear that the locals had embraced the idea.

  • Nina F | Jan 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for this perspective on the favelas of Rio. I have never been to Rio bu have read brief reviews of these tours of slums. But none were as insightful as yours, both text and photos.

    I look forward to reading part 2, and also reading about the reactions to your presence and camera.

    Through this article, we are able to peer ever so briefly into the lives of people who, like anyone anywhere, are just trying to live those lives in the best way they can.

    • Turtle | Jan 8, 2012 at 12:41 am

      You should definitely try to do one of the tours if you ever get a chance. It gives you a really interesting view of how 20 per cent of the population live.

      • Tessa | Nov 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

        A very popular movie among Brazilians, with lots of dark humour, is “Tropo do Elite”. Definitely worth a watch. Interested to see what you think of that after being there. It was done about 5yrs ago, I think. I have a lot of Brazilian friends and used to live with 8 Brazilian guys who gave me there perspective. They come from wealthy families and so gave me a very one sided and privileged look at the country each time I have been there. There was a lot of corruption that I saw when I was there. Some examples: I was told to avoid driving in the weeks before Christmas because the police in the area would pull people over, accuse them of traffic violation, and then bribe the accused to avoid a fine by giving them a slightly smaller fee. Another story, the only slightly dodgy guy I lived with tried to bribe the examiner in Australia when he tried to take his driving test and failed. He was amazed and disgusted that it didn’t work, as that is how he had passed his test in Brazil. Happy travels. Let me know if you want a travel buddy for a leg. Sounds exciting.

        • Michael Turtle | Nov 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm

          Hey Tessa – thanks for the tip about the movie. I’ll try to track it down and check it out (and practice my Portuguese in the process). I’ve heard about the corruption and the privileges for the wealthy before. For a long time, Brazil had a real disparity between rich and poor – and that’s when it becomes much easier for these kind of abuses to become second-nature. These days, of course, they’ve got a booming economy and a burgeoning middle class, so it’ll be interesting to see if that changes things over time.

  • Bret @ Green Global Travel | Jan 8, 2012 at 2:27 am

    Fascinating post, Michael! I’ve been to slums in Colombia and South Africa to see how the other half (i.e. non-tourist sector) lived, and it’s always amazing to me friendly and welcoming people are. Glad to hear they’re getting the gangs at least somewhat under control. We’re hoping to visit Brazil this year.
    Bret @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Our Travels From A-ZMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 9, 2012 at 2:13 am

      If you visit Brazil you should certainly check it out. I think it’s really important to try to get a sense of real life.

  • Cam | Jan 8, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Wow – now that’s a travel experience.
    Cam recently posted..Photo of the Week: Perfect Timing in PragueMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 9, 2012 at 2:12 am

      Sometimes the best ones are the ones that surprise you the most!

  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica | Jan 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    When I hear about tours through shantytowns, it makes me cringe a bit. But I think it is commendable that this guide got the permission of the favela.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Bariloche: The Bad, The Good, and 5 Reasons to ReturnMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 11, 2012 at 7:12 am

      Yeah, I was a bit the same as you – I didn’t want to be taking advantage of the community. But you could see the locals come up and chat to our guide, which was encouraging.

  • James - | Jan 11, 2012 at 8:34 am

    I had no idea that the military were now in the favelas I wonder if it will last and how much it will change though.
    James – recently posted..Have You Considered Hiking In The Suburbs of Paris?My Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 12, 2012 at 1:40 am

      I think the plan is to gradually pacify more of the favelas – especially in the lead-up to the World Cup and Olympic Games in Rio in the next few years.

  • persianas rio de janeiro | Jan 14, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    The big thing about Brazil is that I like the way people live there I mean they are quite friendly and open minded.
    persianas rio de janeiro recently posted..Cortinas e Persians Sob Encomenda no RJMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 18, 2012 at 5:28 am

      They are indeed! Most people were so friendly!

  • Lacy Edney | Dec 5, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Hi Michael,
    Great article! I lived in a small favela called Chapeau Mangueira in Rio de Janeiro for 5 months to get a feel for what life in the favela is like. This particular favela was small, and I went on walking tour of Rocinha in April 2012 to get a feel for the bigger favelas. A favela is just a community of people working to survive and support their families. It’s too bad favelas have such a bad reputation internationally. There was good reason for their bad reputation in the past, but I believe that times are changing.
    Feel free to check out my writing about the favelas:

    • Michael Turtle | Dec 7, 2012 at 11:39 am

      That’s awesome! I’m so glad you’re sharing your stories from there (although, having read your blog, the 200 stairs don’t sound like fun!). The favelas do get a bad wrap. Some of it is justified but that generally comes from such a small percentage of the people who live there. As you say, most people are just trying to live their lives the best they can. I can only imagine what five months there must have been like. I bet you met some really interesting people.

  • saeed | Dec 8, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Brazil has many problems, but the Brazil makes its own image in the international environment like a paradise, which is not real!

    • Michael Turtle | Dec 11, 2012 at 1:01 am

      The thing is, it could be a paradise. I can’t speak for the whole country because I wasn’t there for long, but Rio has so much going for it. I just wish it felt easier.

      • Lacy Edney | Dec 11, 2012 at 6:36 pm

        Haha. Yes, it doesn’t feel very easy in Brazil, but there has to be a way 🙂
        Lacy Edney recently posted..No Mini Skirts AllowedMy Profile

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