Favelas – The other side of life in Rio

On 27 November 2010 something unprecedented occurred in Rio de Janeiro…the police, along with the special forces and the army raided one of the largest and poorest groups of favelas in the city called ´The German Complex´. Headlines around the world were showing the fighting and hailing the police as heroes trying to take back the favelas from the druglords who have largely been left to rule these areas with no state interference for decades.

Things are changing, spurred on by promises made by the now ex-President Lula and the fact that Brazil will host the next Football World Cup and Rio will host the Olympics in 2016. Based on these recent events, I thought it would be an interesting eye-opener to do a Favela Tour whilst in Rio recently and see how the other side of the city lives…away from the ´glamour´ of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches etc…

Brazil, in many ways is really similar to South Africa, in that it´s population is incredibly imbalanced – there are some very very rich Brazileños and then a large portion of their nearly 200 million people live in poverty. Nowhere is the stark contrast between rich and poor more evident than in Rio where on the same hillside, separated by no more than a few metres of rainforest you have huge mansions with tennis courts, swimming pools etc and right next door slums where people live in filth with almost no basic services. Driving into Rocinha (the largest favela in Rio with 95 000 people in 1 square kilometre) you even pass the prestigious American school on it´s doorstep where the ´cream of Rio society´send their kids. The contrast is exactly the same as being in Alexandra township in Johannesburg and seeing the towers of Sandton City right next door. It just makes the inequalities even more apparent.

Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro

Driving into the favela, I felt like I had left Brazil and was suddenly back in Africa. Having been into townships in South Africa and other countries in Africa, I was not shocked by the poor living conditions or the filth etc which was quite an eye-opener for other people on the tour and to be honest the conditions are still alot better than in most places in Africa. For me what was most fascinating was getting a glimpse of and a slight understanding on the culture within the favelas and the role drugs have played in shaping these communities.

Now it might seem crazy to some of you to want to go into areas which are seen from the outside as being notoriously dangerous and that have had conflicts between the state and gangs so recently, but as long as we played by the rules of the gangs we would be fine according to our guide. The one and only rule which he emphasised emphatically many many times was that under NO circumstances could we take any photos in the favela except where he said we could. He said that if we took photos without his permission he took no responsibility for what happened to us. This made me realise that although tourists are welcome in the favelas, we were probably being watched the whole time…Needless to say the camera stayed hidden most of the time…

Some background about the favelas – these originally illegal settlements which dot the hillsides across the whole city of Rio are controlled by three different drug gangs – The Red Army, Friends of the Friends and the Third Army. Basically the favelas operate in a communist/socialist environment whereby the gangs promise the people safety and everything they need as long as the people are loyal to the gangs. So, in other words, as long as you do as the gang says, you are safe. If you don´t you will become part of the statistics that give Rio it´s incredibly high murder rate. Drugs rule in the favelas and in Rio the drug business is more than 2 billion USD per annum.

You may wonder how the rich of Rio can live right next door to the favelas, but basically, another rule of the favelas is that the areas directly bordering them are no-go zones for crime. Basically they are a buffer zone as the gangs don´t want crime in these areas because this will attract the police to the favela. So if you are going to do crime, you have to do it elsewhere in the city…hence you are ´safer´ living close to the favelas than in Copacabana etc. Our guide told us one story about two guys who robbed one of the rich neighbours and bought the car into Rocinha. When the police came to investigate they met the druglords at the entrance to the favela and the two criminals where made to hand over the car and where then promptly beaten up by the gang with the police watching. As I said before, the gangs rule here…

But things are changing…the police now have control over the German Complex and apparently are going to be doing the same operation in Rocinha towards the end of January. After the fall of the German Complex, the media hailed the fact that 150 drug dealers were arrested, but this is not even the tip of the iceberg and the real druglords left the favelas before the raid started and they will do the same in Rocinha in a few weeks time. The bribery and corruption described to us by our guide was incredible – police earn so little money in Brazil and many of them have extra income sources from the gangs themselves. Which is why the gangs have been allowed to operate unhindered for so long. This is not going to change overnight and it is a known fact in Rio that the police work with the gangs. Thus the 2 billion dollar industry, while being pushed out of the favelas, is just going to find another place or another way of operating.

One question I posed to our guide was how the fact that the gangs no longer control some of the favelas is going to change the social structure of these areas? With the strong presence of the gangs gone, will the police be able to maintain control of petty and not so petty crime? Other stories our guide told us of people who committed crime in the favelas showed the heavy kind of punishment (i.e. death) that usually get handed out. The police can´t do that now…I really hope for the sake of the 99% of ordinary citizens who live in the favelas that their ´freedom´from the gangs doesn´t lead to them having to fear crime in general…

There is alot of effort, money and time being spent on upgrading the favelas with schools, hospitals, new houses and basic infrastructure. We saw one complex of new apartments being built for the poorest of the poor that live right up against the granite cliff in Rocinha. They will have the apartments for 2 years after which they will be given the title deeds to them. What is probably then going to happen is that they will move out of the apartments back to the poorer conditions higher up the hills and rent out the apartments to make money.

New apartment blocks and other infrastructure are being built by the government to try and improve people´s lives in the favelas

But let´s wait and see what Rio and the government can do for the people of the favelas in the coming few years. After visiting Rio and two of the favelas, I know I will be watching this story with more personal interest now…

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