It was day two of our trip to Brazil, and our first night was full of good food and partying in Lapa. The next morning we woke up tired, but were instantly rejuvenated when we remembered that our day would start with a tour of two of Rio’s favelas and end with us throwing a party at the Para Ti School in the Vila Canoas favela.
Our tour started with a visit to Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela which at the time was run by a druglord. As we made our way into the favela, our guide explained the hierarchy of the gangs in Rio’s favelas. At the bottom of the pyramid are watchers who are tasked with memorizing the faces of everyone who enters into the favela. Next, are runners who make drug pickups and deliveries. Then, there are the soldiers, and their armed presence made the reality of the favelas very real for me. Teenage boys in bulletproof vests, armed with M-16s and all sorts of other weapons that you only see in places like Afghanistan, patrol the favelas, making sure to protect the turf from rival gangs. Next up on the pyramid are the managers who organize the sales and supervise security. Between the managers and the druglord are the owners who make arrangements with drug suppliers. And of course, the druglord is the head honcho.
Once in Rocinha, our guide warned us not to take pictures of anyone’s faces in the favela. At one point, as we got out of our minivan to walk through the neighborhood, we were instructed to put our cameras away altogether. Hey, she didn’t have to tell me twice!
As we learned, young kids are recruited to join drug gangs because they can make more money in the drug business than their parents can make working a regular 9 to 5. I asked if the favela residents live in fear with the gangs around, but surprisingly, our guide explained that people feel secure with the gangs because they provide more protection than the corrupt police. Also, the druglord looks out for the residents by helping them with their basic needs like food and medication, thereby buying their loyalty. We were told that the police rarely venture into the favelas, but when they do, it’s an all-out battle!
Another interesting point that our guide made is that tourists are welcome in the favelas because the druglords want to prove that if the favelas are safe enough for tourists, then they’re safe enough for the middle class to come in and buy their drugs.
I thought that I would be afraid walking through Rocinha, but I wasn’t. I was fascinated by the drug gang’s presence amongst the everyday residents. I was also fascinated by the sustainability of the community – it’s full of restaurants, markets, a dental office, and even a church! While we knew that we were being watched, the soldiers seemed oblivious to our presence as some sat with AK-47s in their laps eating Chinese food as we walked past.
Our next stop on the tour was the Vila Canoas favela nearby. While many of Brazil’s favelas are run by druglords, Vila Canoas has never been a realistic turf for them since it lacks multiple entries and exits and since there aren’t sufficient lookout points high enough for them to keep watch of the police or rival drug gangs entering their territory.
Unlike Rocinha, Vila Canoas is a relatively small favela with confusing, twisting alleys. Fortunately, the alleys have street names so that if the residents get turned around, they have a point of reference to ask someone for directions.
Vila Canoas is also a sustainable community as it has everything from bars to beauty salons within its walls.
*Rocinha has recently been occupied by Rio’s Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in an effort to rid the favelas of drug gangs in preparation for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. However, many residents are uncomfortable with the police’s presence in the favelas as they have a reputation for being oppressive and corrupt.
NOTE: If this post looks familiar, that’s because it’s a re-post. During my recent website updates, this post somehow got deleted. It’s important that I re-post this one since the favelas are such a key part of local life in Rio and throughout other cities in Brazil.