I was recently fortunate enough to visit the sprawling Rocinha favela, one of the largest in Rio, which sits on a stunning hillside in a cove overlooking the Atlantic about a ten minutes drive from Ipanema beach. The Rio Favelas are synonymous in popular fiction with crime and violence, from the epic City of God to the episodes in Modern Warfare that place the gamer in charge of shooting their way out of the dense and mazelike warren of houses.
As with the slums in Mumbai, the ethics of whether or not to visit the favelas are hotly contested. One of our guides, a friend who has lived and worked in Rocinha for the past year producing a film, spoke of the gaggles of tourists who arrive on organized trips from their hostels to rush through the central street and gawp at the heavily armed traficos that until recently held sovereignty over the population estimated at between 150-300,000 people.
Yet times in Brazil are changing, as the B in the BRIC economies charges up the table of the world's richest countries (it is now 8th) and looks forward to hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics one year later. The favelas are not immune to this transition and according to the UN study "State of the World Cities 2010/2011" Brazil has reduced its favela shantytown population by 16 percent in the last decade, with "an improvement in the living standards of 10.5 million Brazilians." According to the study, the poor living in favelas went down from 31.5 to 26.4 percent of the population.
The events of the past months however, may signal an even greater attempt at bringing the favelas into the fabric of the Brazilian state. I am of course referring to the government's decision to send in the army to a number of favelas in a series operations designed to disarm and disband the various drug cartels. I visited Rocinha just over three-weeks after the military had taken control following a highly publicized campaign warning of their arrival. The tanks have gone and instead heavily armed BOPE policemen patrol or stand at intersections dotted throughout the favelas, largely ignored by the residents in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the US occupation of Iraq.
The Brazilian authorities are keen that one of their premier tourist city's is not longer associated with rampant crime and war like levels of violence and the talk is that Rocinha may become a district of Rio rather than an independent space in and of itself. Many however see the takeovers as a cynical exercise in painting Brazil in a positive light solely for the duration of the international sporting tournaments that are coming up in the next five years. Whatever the medium term future of favelas like Rocinha, the short-term may prove paradoxically more dangerous. Why? Because the localized version of justice run by the traficos led to an incredibly low level of crime within the favelas. Even three weeks after their departure residents spoke of increasing rate of crime.
Whereas people in the past could appeal to the strong men to pass out brutal punishments, an effective deterrent apparently, the code of not speaking to the police makes their presence far less effective than their automatic weapons and combat knives suggests.
Recognizing this problem the authorities are attempting to flood the camp with a civil-police force in the coming months (the Brazilian version of British Community Support Officers), to attempt to reassure the families who often who warn their children not to leave the favela in fear of crime. The sweeteners to accompany the states full entry in Rocinha include further infrastructure development including an ambitious cable car system and attempts to control dangerous building on the sheer cliffs at the favelas periphery.
Only time will tell if the Brazilian government are committed to truly integrated the favelas into the asphalto (as the rest of the city is known) Until then residents will have to endure the uncertainty and haphazard successes and failures of the state returning like a long lost husband to care for its own population.