The military occupation of Rio’s slums

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil have been cleaned up by the military. What’s it like inside the favelas now? This Rio tour will show you.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


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.

What's it like in Rio's favelas?

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.

What's it like in Rio's favelas?
What's it like in Rio's favelas?

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.

What's it like in Rio's favelas?
What's it like in Rio's favelas?

“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.”

What's it like in Rio's favelas?

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.

What's it like in Rio's favelas?
What's it like in Rio's favelas?

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.

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

29 thoughts on “The military occupation of Rio’s slums”

    • 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!

  1. 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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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:

    • 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.

  4. I don’t know how I came here, but is kinda interesting see how we look like… animals in the zoo for foreigns. Stop doing this stupid shit, if you want to go to favela, just go to, don’t pay any “guide” to see how “animals” live.

    • Hi José. I would hate to think that people doing these tours would view the local residents as ‘animals’ and I’m sure that’s not the intention of the guides either. But, having said that, I think tourists always get more out of a visit to a new area if they have a guide who can show them around. If someone went to explore somewhere like these favelas on their own, I’m not sure that is better than going with a local expert. I’m sure we agree, though, that everything should be done respectfully. Thanks for the comment!


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