Brazil, Day 4: Favela Rocinha

Our experience on the favela tour blew my mind this morning. Warning: the following post contains information that is likely to make members of my family extremely uncomfortable; just keep in mind that I am alive and well. This experience was worth every ounce of risk, and the perspective I gained is something all of us privileged people should have.

“Favela” essentially means “slum”. Over 52 million Brazilians live in favelas; the 2002 Academy Award winner of best foreign film, “Cidade de Deus” (City of God) portrayed real events in an actual favela about 40 km outside Rio. Favelas are famous for their brightly colored buildings, horrible living conditions, and gang/drug violence. Many are controlled by drug lords; back in November, Rio’s police undertook a major cleaning up effort in a couple of favelas, resulting in the arrest of over 100 drug lords. Although the drug trade is inherently unstable and dangerous, it also can lend a sense of order and government; the drug lords understand that business is better when people aren’t afraid to leave their homes.

We joined a group of 15 others on a tour of favela Rocinha, located about 15 minutes northwest of Ipanema. It is one of the safer favelas, and the tour group, Be A Local, has run tours there for a while now. It’s a great organization that gives a significant portion of profits back to the favela.

Our guide, Patrick, gave us some instructions during the van ride to the favela that certainly reinforced the reality of what we were about to do. You might be wondering why anyone would want to tour a slum; the answer is that we (as all three of us did Teach For America) were looking for additional/different perspective on poverty, plus favelas have just become kind of synonymous with Rio (thanks in part to the movie). We were all aware of the enormous amount of poverty in Brazil and wanted the chance both to see it up close and to contribute in a very small way to community development through our tour fee and supporting the local artists who would be featured on the tour.

Anyway, Patrick told us that following his instructions would be very important in order to make sure we were all safe. This particularly applied to picture taking; certain areas are okay for pictures while others are not. The drug lords are generally very wary of photography because of the potential publication of images that might be incriminating, so we couldn’t take pictures in any open, public areas.

Traffic was unusually slow en route to Rocinha, and apparently this was because the police were doing a small raid. Patrick said they were looking for illegal cars and bikes, but regardless of how harmless those things sound, police presence was significantly higher, which just creates more tension. We saw a lot of police cars as we pulled up at the foot of the hill.

The biggest part of the adventure was right at the beginning. Since the tour route starts towards the top of the favela, we had to get up there, and there aren’t really any roads, so we couldn’t just drive up. Instead, we caught motorcycle rides with some of the locals who make money by shuttling people to the top… the favela equivalent of taxis. They were not in any way associated with the tour company, but they apparently do this every day with tourists.

After another round of instructions from Patrick (motorcycle safety tips and another reminder not to take pictures), we waited to get on our motorcycles. Mary hopped right on one, and Stacey and I waved good-bye more than a little nervously as she disappeared up the hill. We weren’t all going at once, and we didn’t know where we were going except up.

Stacey and I ended up being on the last wave to go up. I rode with Riccard, an attractive 30-year-old who pulled up, pointed to me as if to say “I’ll take her!”, and was nice enough to let me put my arms around his waist rather than holding onto the little handles behind my seat. He also told me to keep my limbs as close as possible, and I soon saw why: moments later, we were weaving our way through the traffic of cars, trucks, and motorcycles headed up the hill. It was a rush unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We passed police carrying machine guns and cars with men pointing machine guns out the window as they drove up, and we also hit a number of curves during which I grabbed Riccard very tight and prayed to Cristo not to let us wipe out on the road. Nonetheless, part of me actually felt very safe; Riccard just seemed to radiate a confidence and kindness that reassured me greatly. We talked as much as his attention on the road and my lack of Portuguese fluency allowed, but he told me that he loves the United States and has lived in Rocinha for 30 years.

Not more than 10 minutes after leaving the bottom of the favela, Stacey and I caught sight of our group, and the motorcycle ride was over. I wish I could have taken a picture with Riccard, but alas we were definitely in a no-picture area. I thanked him as profusely as I could and joined the group.

We set to walking single-file through the narrow “streets”; they are more like passageways between the jumble of buildings. Throughout the tour, we navigated around hanging wires, trash, feces, and running water. You will have to see pictures (when I get home) to fully appreciate what the favela was like; it’s very hard to describe the extent of the poverty we witnessed.

Despite the dirty and dismal surroundings, we encountered people who were quite friendly and seemed happy. Stop 1 was in an artist’s studio, where the three of us bought beautiful paintings and took our first pictures of the view, which was incredible. They may live in a slum, but the residents still have prime real estate with amazing views of the water. Speaking of real estate, we learned that the general idea of land ownership in Brazil is essentially that if you can build something, you own that space. In the favela, this means that people often just build on top of already existing buildings, which explains the very haphazard appearance of the favela. (Both here and in the ones I passed in Venezuela, I find it hard to believe that none of the buildings have ever just fallen over.)

We stopped next to watch some teenage boys play quite an impressive percussion arrangement on paintcans (I took video). After that, we bought very cheap bracelets made, very innovatively, from internet cables. We also visited a community center that provides child care – a key service in a community where families average six kids and teenage pregnancy is almost standard procedure. Because of the police activity, no one was at the child care center. (For the record, we were among at least three tour groups in Rocinha at that time, and the guides were constantly checking in with people as we moved to make sure we wouldn’t encounter any trouble.)

Finally, we descended to the main entrance where we’d started; our final walk was through a covered outdoor marketplace where once again the police were everywhere. By this time they seemed less menacing…

Mary, Stacey, and I are still processing the experience, and I/we plan on supplementing this post as we make an effort to write down everything we saw and heard. For now, what I can say is that I am now grateful in a whole new sense for what I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life; safety, housing, food, clothing, education, and disposable income are so easy to take for granted. The 400,000 residents of this one favela live 20 minutes from the high-class area of Ipanema, but their world couldn’t be more different.


The newspapers the morning after we were in the favela all had headlines about a major police operation, so turns out they were there for more than unregistered motorcycles. Here are some of the translations from the newspapers I bought:

Front page headline in O Dia: “Police now hunt wife of the ‘powder boss’ in Rocinha”

Sub-headline on front page: “The vanity of Danubia de Souza Rangel – wife of the trafficker Nem – will be used by police to catch her. A fugitive of justice, she posts pictures on the Internet of the life of luxury she leads in the favela, which yesterday was targeted by a police operation.”

Article headline: “Nem and Xerifa of Rocinha escape from police siege: Investigation that found a R$2 million laundering scheme culminated in the hunt for drug boss and his wife in the slum”

First paragraph: “The civil police descended yesterday morning launching a megaoperation with about 200 agents to arrest community leaders and relatives of the head of the drug trade in Rocinha, Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, or Nem.  All are suspected members of a money laundering scheme. An investigation discovered movements of more than R$2 million [~ US $1.3 million] in bank accounts.”

Front-page headline in O Globo: “Companies Launder Rocinha Money: Five small business in the Zona Sul  [the southern part of Rio where the beaches are] and Rocinha are under suspicion of laundering money for drug trafficking in the favela. In a local operation, the civil police seized three tons of marijuana and arrested 11 people, but the trafficking chief escaped again.”

Article headline: “Siege of ‘laundering’ of Rocinha: police operation against business that legalize the millions of profits from trafficking”

First paragraph: “Five legal small business in the Zona Sul and Rocinha are being investigated on suspicion of money laundering for the drug traffickers in the shantytown. To dismantle the gang, identified after seven months of investigations, operations opened yesterday in Rocinha, one of the last strongholds of trafficking in the Zona Sul. The goal was to meet 30 arrest warrants for people connected to the drug dealer Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, or Nem, but only two of the people searched were arrested. In the action, no weapons were seized, and Nem escaped once again. Despite the claims of the residents of Rocinha that on Monday night three police officers from Leblon went up to the slum to advise of the operation, the commanders of the police denied that there had been leaking of information. The police said they could not disclose the names of the companies so as not to prejudice the investigation.”

We heard something on the tour about leading information about whatever the operation was, so it’s interesting that that shows up in this article.



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