Rio de Janeiro’s favelas: A.U.E. the Brazilian way (18+)
To begin with, I’ll try to explain what favelas are all about. For most Russians, the term has become synonymous with “slums. And while in colloquial speech it is quite appropriate, in reality there are some differences. Slums exist in many Latin American cities, but “favela” is specifically a Brazilian word.
In Brazil, favelas began to appear immediately after the abolition of slavery on May 13, 1888 and the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil on November 15, 1889. Various economic and domestic political processes contributed to this.
Centuries-old principles of an economy built on slave labor collapsed. Slaves gained freedom, but received no social support and no means of survival in the new reality. This was the main reason for the emergence of favelas in Brazil. Powerful streams of migrant workers, former slaves, moved around the country in search of work and shelter. Finding permanent jobs with the former dons (on very unfavorable terms, of course), they occupied the most uncomfortable areas of land, such as the steep hills and mountainsides, and settled there. The government turned a blind eye to this because there was plenty of land, and mountains were not very popular among the wealthy Brazilians at the time.
Before the name favela caught on, the slums in Brazilian cities were called bairros africanos, “African neighborhoods. It is believed that the word “favela” itself originated in Morro da Favela, a hill in the old port area in the center of Rio de Janeiro, next to historic neighborhoods such as Santo Cristo and Gamboa. During the slave era, barges carrying slaves arrived there, and there were many slave quarantine areas in these areas. Slum dwellers found work in the port terminals and other parts of the city.
The hill was named Morro da Favela after another hill in Bahia. There, in Bahia, lived the rebels who founded the settlement of Canudus, and on its slopes grew the shrub Cnidoscolus quercifolius, known as favela in Brazil. In 1896, soldiers from Rio went north to quell a rebellion, many were killed, and when the survivors returned a year later, they realized that the Brazilian government had cheated them by depriving them of housing and allowances. Then they seized a hill in Rio and named it after the one on which the city of the defeated rebels stood. These days, favelas, like shrubs, prefer to grow on hills.
The aforementioned hill (and the favela on it) is still there, just north of Rio de Janeiro’s central station. Today it is called Morro da Providência, and here is the view from the top!
As for Rio specifically, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the urban planner Pereira Passouche was active there, demolishing the apartment buildings in the center, forcing their inhabitants to settle on the hills. Around the 1920s, the name “favela” spread to other hills with shacks and shacks. Typical slum dwellers of that period were former slaves, former soldiers, and European immigrants who could not afford decent housing in the center. Even then, favelas were considered the most dangerous place in Rio. In the 1940s, the growth of favelas was encouraged by the industrialization of the country.
The most recent favelas are thought to have originated in the 1970s, during Brazil’s military dictatorship, when Brazil’s economic boom led to an influx of rural residents into the cities. Those who couldn’t find a place to live were forced to live in slums. All of today’s favelas come from them. But this dating is very tentative, because the favelas continue to grow.
In the name of tolerance, Brazilian society refers to any favela as a “community” or simply a “hill. The state officially refers to the favelas by the strange term “subnormal agglomeration. It refers to a group of at least 51 residential units (houses or barracks) occupying, or until recently occupying, someone else’s land.
According to the 2010 census, there were 6,329 favelas in Brazil, spread across 323 municipalities. A total of 11.4 million people, about 6 percent of the population, lived in them. The UN predicted that about 55 million people, a quarter of Brazil’s population, would live in favelas by 2020. But in fact, the proportion of Brazilian slum dwellers is gradually decreasing, albeit very slowly.
In Rio de Janeiro there were 1,393,314 favela dwellers in 2010, or 22% of the municipality’s total population. But as a percentage, this is not the highest figure. In Belém, for example, almost 54% of residents are concentrated in slums.
However, it is unlikely that anyone is able to count the number of inhabitants of the favelas. First, it has been 10 years – Brazil’s population has grown, and so have the favelas. Secondly, census takers will simply not be allowed into some areas.
Favelas, in the classical sense, are not just slums, but neighborhoods that are not controlled by the state. Since no place is ever empty, the functions of the state have been partly taken over by gangsters. Consequently, the favelas are divided among the various factions.
This is reminiscent of what happened in many Russian cities in the ’90s. Gangsters administered justice and were the de facto substitute for the law enforcement wing of the state. If the police do go into the favelas, it’s in special ops mode. That is, you can’t just call them in if you’ve been robbed.
Special operations are usually large-scale sweeps accompanied by special forces (BOPE, Battalion of Special Police Operations) and armored vehicles. Just yesterday, Brazilian television showed one of these sweeps live. The BOPE is made up of real monsters, which is not surprising, since they are just as dangerous on the streets of their city as the soldiers on the battlefield.
If you take Rio de Janeiro, it is divided into several clusters. There are affluent neighborhoods, there are ordinary neighborhoods and there are favelas. Traditionally, favelas are molded to the mountains and are located on high ground. A favela, however, is not some “working-class suburb,” as we usually have when it comes to dangerous neighborhoods. First, the protagonists do not work in favelas, and second, a favela can also be located in the city center.
At the same time, favelas have clear boundaries, they are divided into zones that are controlled by different gangs. Within each of these neighborhoods there is relative order, because there is a single authority.
But a neighborhood in the center that has no favelas and is not subordinate to local groups could well be a feeding ground for them. For this reason – precisely because it is “no one’s” – such an area is often more dangerous than the favelas themselves. Periodically, packs of young gangsters descend from the mountains and raid ordinary Rio de Janeiro residents and tourists. Since Downtown is supposedly nobody’s land, it’s okay for them to rob or shoot someone there. But, of course, they would not shit inside their favelas. In this respect, the favelas are relatively safe.
The second important point is that ordinary people are afraid of favelas. Cabs and even police do not go there, and ordinary cariocas (Rio residents) do not go there. Why does this happen? First, the inhabitants of favelas are very wary because of the illegal activities they engage in (above all, the gangsters who run the neighborhoods). The police can enter a favela on various pretexts in order to gather some evidence against the next criminal boss and to obtain permission for a special operation. Accordingly, the locals suspect an agent in every stranger, and they are inherently hostile to him.
Often the streets of the favelas are simply blocked by their inhabitants, and if they are not, the occasional driver or cab driver caught in their maze runs the risk of disliking the local gangs and paying with his car, his health, or even his life. Although recently it has become safer in favelas of Rio than it was 10 years ago.
What do favela residents do? Stealing, robbing, selling drugs and weapons, and other illegal things. But I’m talking about the bandits, and they’re in the minority here. Most favelas are peaceful and hardworking people who work in the service sector and industry and are forced to coexist with the Brazilian reality of the drug trade. Drug trafficking is woven into the life of peaceful neighborhoods, often not without the support of the residents, as they have more trust in the power of the drug traffickers than in the government. Traficanci (traffickers) participate in the social life of the favelas, helping residents and guarding local “law and order.
For the Brazilian authorities, the very existence of favelas is a huge problem that they have not been able to solve for years. Tourism is an important source of income in the country, and almost every tourist has heard about how dangerous it is in Brazil and is afraid of being robbed. And for good reason: tourists are indeed robbed. Therefore, the authorities are trying to somehow tame the residents of favelas and combat the problem.
During carnivals and other international events the situation tends to escalate. Before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, there were large-scale special operations in Rio, with SWAT and guardsmen on duty in the city, so tourists could feel safe. But then they left, and it was too expensive to keep the city under curfew, so everything went back to normal.
I don’t know how possible it is to eradicate the problems of favelas. It’s also a social issue. You can’t just arrest everyone and take them to a desert island in the Atlantic Ocean. You have to give people jobs, you have to give them decent housing. Brazil does not have the money for this, and even if it did, a separate city must be built for the current inhabitants of favelas. Or rather, dozens of cities. It is clear that it is not even a matter of a decade, but maybe half a century.
As an acquaintance of mine told me, three days ago on Copacabana (Rio’s most famous beach and the affluent neighborhood adjacent to it) the police stopped a group of young bandits, searched them, and drove off. Just a few minutes later, these thugs started jumping on regular city buses and yanking gadgets, jewelry, and anything else they could find from passengers.
Why are there so many youths among the criminals here? Because the law makes it very difficult to prosecute teenagers. If a 12-year-old kid goes to take someone’s necklace and shoots him in the knee (or not in the knee, he doesn’t really care), even if the police catch him, they can’t do anything to him. If he can still be prosecuted for murder, then if he commits theft, he will simply be released. So he is well aware of his impunity and goes on his rampage.
Some of the favelas have been transformed recently. Those areas that are closer to the center have decided to socialize and begin to earn money from tourists. Tours of the favelas have appeared, and even special guides to whom you pay for a tour. The tourists are happy, the residents of the favelas are happy, and they get money from them. Only the local thugs are probably upset.
Last time I was in Rio, I went to just such a favela (it was Santa Marta). It’s relatively safe, you can take pictures there, even Michael Jackson filmed a music video there, and overall it’s pretty fun.
Romance, poverty, and crime: the secret life of Brazilian favelas
Brazilian favelas are one of the first things that come to mind when you talk about Brazil. Colorful houses on the mountain near Rio de Janeiro have become almost a trademark of Brazil. Tourists from all over the world come to see them, they are remembered when they talk about poverty and crime in Latin America, they organize tours for extreme people, and scary foreigners try not to get close to them.
What does life in the favelas really look like and are they that scary? Read on the pages of Ridus.
The safest place in Rio
My friend Enrique, a Brazilian teacher, lives and works in one of Rio’s favelas, the one where travel agencies don’t take tourists. But everyone knows him here, and he can afford to come with guests. If people are with him, it means they are “their own.” That’s the way it works here.
Enrique, like all the locals in Brazil, hides his phone when he goes out for a walk on Copacabana Beach, and he advises me to do the same: not to talk on the phone, not to take money out of his pockets, carry a purse bag on his belt under his shirt. But as soon as we walk into his favela, he takes out his phone and floppily slips it into the back pocket of his shorts, he calmly counts his money while standing at the coffee stand, he removes the mask that everyone and everywhere in Brazil now wears.
He tells me, “You don’t have to be afraid, no one will steal your phone here, but keep your face open.”
The favela he lives in is real. That means that it’s really a place where gangsters rule today. Not back in the ’80s, but now they sell illegal substances and weapons on the streets. Thin and swarthy boys with machine guns in their hands pass by on a moped and say hello to Enrique.
We walk through the favela, and he tells us that there are rules. For example, mopeds here are ridden without helmets, hence the rule about the mask. They have to see your face to know who you are, to remember you if they need to.
And nobody wants your money and phones here, because there’s a lot of business going on here, it’s a black market, and there’s a lot of money involved. All the local gangsters want is for you not to interfere with their business. That’s why you can’t film here. You can’t even sneak in, because they’ll see, because there are eyes everywhere. Enrique invites me to the school where he works, but he warns me not to take pictures even near the windows: if they see you, they’ll think you want to rat out the locals. You just don’t get out of here, you’re lost.
But if you don’t break that rule, no one will touch you. The punks walk to the beaches with tourists for their petty loot, and there they can afford a lot more. Anything they steal is theirs. But you can’t do that here at home, it’s strict.
“If you don’t take pictures, if you come here with a local, if you don’t threaten their business, no one will threaten you here,” Enrique says.
We’re walking down the street and he says hello to a guy, exchanges a few words in Portuguese with him, and then says: “By the way, this is my friend, he used to be a bandit, but then he quit, he has a family. A lot of people here have something to do with crime. I would say everyone, but that’s not true. Many people just live in the favela and follow the rules that the local government establishes. It’s just that that power is criminal.
Protected by gangsters
Rio has more than a dozen favelas, and often one turns into another, an outsider in such nuances do not understand. Relationships between residents of different favelas can be tense or, conversely, friendly. And this is not about relations between people, it is of course about relations between gangsters.
We walk through the neighborhood and in twenty minutes we find ourselves in the vicinity of two other favelas. To me there is no difference, they all look the same. The same houses, assembled from what was there, the same vendors at the crossroads, with big boxes in which they used to sell chickens or rabbits in the markets, holding parcels of something different, probably illegal. But the power in these favelas is different. And for the locals this plays a role.
That power runs the lives of the people who live in the territories under their control. Enrique says it doesn’t govern that badly, to be honest.
For example, here you can open your own cafe without problems, if you pay the locals 250 reais every month (about 3.5 thousand rubles), and no one will demand more, but this “roof” guarantees you safety. It’s something like a tax, the locals are happy with it.
“If you need an expensive operation or to educate a child, the state will never give you money for that, but the bandits will. They always do. But then they ask for a favor in return: if someone comes to you and asks about them, about their business, you say nothing, you haven’t seen anything, you know nothing, silence is the price. And it suits people: they know that in exchange for their silence they can get medicine or textbooks for their children,” says my acquaintance.
He does not justify the bandits, but shrugs his shoulders and says that people just want to survive and don’t care who gives them that help.
Rio’s most famous favela
In general, there are many favelas in Brazil, with many more in São Paulo rather than Rio de Janeiro, although the latter is better known. Why so?
There are not as many tourists in São Paulo, and favelas are not as beautiful and obvious as in Rio, where you can see them from almost anywhere in the city and they unwittingly become a landmark. And the most famous of Rio’s favelas is Rocinha.
Today it is just a poor residential neighborhood, which, according to official statements, is no longer run by drug lords, but is still not completely legalized. Not completely, because there is nothing there on the official city maps. You can’t order an Uber there – it only comes to the entrance to the favela, and then there’s only a local motorcycle cab that can take you to the top of the mountain for five reals (about 73 rubles). Yes, and the houses in Rocinha still have no addresses. Still, is something being done to legalize these buildings, where Rio’s poor and destitute population lives?
Brazilians say that every election politicians promise to sort it out and legalize everything, and in a way that people will only profit from it. But after the elections it all dies down.
Sometimes electricity meters are installed in houses in the favela at night (!), but few people use them. Usually they either cut them off or underestimate the numbers.
And in Rosinha there is a sewage system in the houses, it is even officially connected for a few months for free, then people somehow deal with this problem on their own.
A tour of the favela
There are official tours of Rocinha. It’s no longer the same as my walk with Enrique, it’s a full-fledged business.
A group tour costs about 100 reals – 1.5 thousand rubles. For 100 dollars you can get an individual tour, but because of the covid no tourists, and I was lucky to get an individual tour at the cost of the group. The guide meets you at the entrance to the favela, puts you on a motorcycle cab, which rushes up the crooked streets, and from there you go down on foot, looking in the most secluded places Rocinha.
These tours are as official as possible because Rocinha has long been a safe place. Authorities say it’s just inhabited by non-wealthy Brazilians who have nothing to do with crime. At least, that’s no more likely than with any other people.
Throughout the entire descent, the guide asks to put the camera away twice. Both times it happens in front of intersections where guys are peddling some kind of sacks and bags. I don’t ask questions, I guess everything myself.
But since everyone knows about it, including the guide, it means that it’s not so clear-cut after all.
The guide shows the piles of garbage, explains that life in such an illegal place is complicated, it is organized like a city within a city. The garbage, for example, is also taken out once a week, this system is established here.
And then there are the schools. On our way, we visit two of them at once: one for kids, the other for older kids. Children can study there for free, and the essence of these schools is that teenagers don’t run around outside all day, but stay busy as much as possible. By the way, some of the money from my tour is donated to one of these schools, for charity.
People on the streets in Rocinha are not afraid of cameras, they have nothing to hide. And they are also quite familiar with tourists, through which many make money.
I ask the guide if he has lived here himself, because he knows the locals so well. He laughs. He says, “Of course not! I live near Copacabana, just my friends are here. But there are a lot of normal people here. People from rich neighborhoods are afraid of favelas, they’re afraid to even come here, but it’s silly: they meet people who live here every day, because these people work in cafes, in hotels, in stores, they serve rich people, they just come home here afterwards, but they live the most normal life here.”