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Tourists alongside with drug runners in Rio’s favelas

Although it doesn't always appear to be the case, the police is having a tough task to take back the favelas of Rio from the drug barons, Erik Bergin reports.

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ROCINHA, RIO DE JANEIRO — It was a magnificent PR coup. Even before night had started develop into early morning on November 13, 2011, a Sunday, residents in the Rio favelas of Rocinha and nearby Vidigal woke to the sound of a handful helicopters over the rooftops and about twenty armored police vehicles moving into the shantytowns’ steep roads.

Without firing one single shot, 3,000 police took the favelas back from the drug runners that had been around for decades. Photographers and reporters covered the event, which had been carefully advertised prior to the razzias. Therefore, on the Saturday evening before the hit, the sense in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, was eerily quiet.

“Everybody stayed inside. The usual weekend parties just didn’t happen,” said one resident to a local paper. “Everybody just waited for what would happen next.”


Six months after the police run against organized crime in Rio de Janeiro’s mega-shantytown, tourists walk the streets of a Rocinha favela tour and are driven in buses up and down its steep and narrow main street to a viewpoint overlooking the surreal sight of thousands sheds climbing on a hillside and down through the valley towards the Atlantic.

Drug lords had absolute control of this and many other favelas for tens of years – and they still do, in many places. But here, in Rocinha, you’ll these days find fancy clothing stores, bank offices, and restaurants, including Rocinha’s own alternative to McDonald’s, Mega Lanche’s.

Photo Story: The ride of a lifetime: Above Rio in a helicopter

In a Rio de Janeiro that gears up for two mega sporting events – Soccer World Championship in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 – war against drugs and druglords are highly prioritized by politicians and police alike. A huge project aims to “pacify” Rio’s several hundreds of shantytowns, an undertaking heavy with prestige for the city’s leadership.

But according to news reports, the results are questionable. Rio is said to house about 900 favelas of different sizes. Out of these, in February 2012, police and military forces were said to be in control of fewer than 20. And several reports claim that as soon as the police take control in one place, organized crime just moves ahead to another. Rio’s chief of public security, José Mariano Beltrame, admitted earlier in 2012 that crime on the other side of the Rio Bay was up as an effect of the police’s war on crime in Rio de Janeiro.

Moreover, the city’ different police forces do not seem to be able to even control the areas they once already took control over. In April, policeman Rodrigo Alves Cavalcante was shot dead in Rocinha while on patrol. Earlier, in March, a shootout in the same neighborhood claimed the lives of three suspected members of the Amigos dos amigos crime gang, whose leader Antonio Francisco Bonfim, nicknamed “Nem”, was found in a car trunk and arrested last year as he attempted to escape the law. Robberies are also said to be increasing in Rocinha.

A boy plays with a football in Vila Canoas’ school, sponsored by tourists,

6 percent of Rio’s residents, about 12 million people, are said to live in favelas. Yet, as common as they are, you are strongly advised never to enter a favela without a proper guide. The Traveling Reporter visited two favelas in Rio, Rocinha and the much smaller Vila Canoas. Inside, narrow alleys twist and turn into a labyrinth that is impossible to grasp from within. Houses are built on top of each other in breathtaking, home-made constructions that seem ready to collapse any minute.

In Vila Canoas, a social project, run by the income from tourists, had assembled teachers and put together a school so that local kids could get education. That is one sign that the letting tourists into the favelas can help improving living standards there. At another place, a resident has built his own shantytown villa, including a fancy balcony fitted with bars to stop potential intruders.

Rocinha’s main street is lined with shops, banks and restaurants. Photo: Traveling Reporter

Yet, Rocinha and many other favelas that are situated close to Rio de Janeiro’s city center and the world famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, look considerably better, and are safer and more professionally organized, than many others inland. A Swedish scholar that the Traveling Reporter talked to, Hannah, lived nine months in one of the lesser known favelas, far from the high-life and broad boulevards of the parts of Rio where tourists usually come.

“Those that are farther away from the tourist center look very different,” she told the Reporter. “Jobless rates among men are very high. Women earn money for the household by working as housekeepers in middle class homes, or those of the rich. They get up at five in the morning and travel to town to work, or they stay at their employers during weekdays in small rooms.”

What is making the matter all the worse is the fact that few seem to trust the police. There are many testimonies of hard police violence in the favelas, where, ironically, residents tend put more trust in the criminal gangs, which provide food, water, medicine and some sort of twisted security, rather than the police.

“There is a complicated relation between the residents and those who run the favela. On the one hand, many feel they live under oppression. On the other, they view the police as extremely corrupt and violent,” Hanna said.





The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.