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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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.
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