Are Rio de Janeiro's Favelas Safe?

Favela Rocinha
Favela Rocinha | © metamorFoseAmBULAnte/Flickr
Euan Marshall

Favelas. We’ve all seen them, the gravity-defying clusters of breezeblock homes and labyrinthine alleyways, leaning precariously against the slopes of the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. Their improvised architecture is attractive and sparks curiosity. While man-made, the formation of these communities appears almost organic, like spreading clumps of moss embedding themselves into the naturally-occurring nooks and crannies of a rocky bed. For outsiders, they remain difficult to fully understand, with their dangerous image, convoluted social politics and confusing sense of ‘Who’s In Charge’.

Everyone has their own opinion on Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. At one end of the scale, there are those that see them as a hotbed for violence, drug dealing and all types of depravity; on the other, some view them as triumphs of social organization, the last bastions of solidarity within communities and altogether a great place to live. As if to further exemplify the contradictions of Rio’s favelas, both the aforementioned points of view are simultaneously accurate and wholly incorrect.

Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro

With the news of British tourist Eloise Dixon being shot twice after accidentally driving into a shanty-town controlled by a drugs gang, the question has returned to the fore: Are Rio de Janeiro’s favelas safe?

First of all, as so often happens with foreign reporting on Brazil, the details of this story have been skewed. Mrs Dixon and her family, from south London, had been travelling in the direction of Rio de Janeiro after holidaying in the popular seaside resort of Angra dos Reis, some 170 kilometers from the city. Having stopped to ask where they could buy water (água in Portuguese), they were mistakenly directed towards the community of Água Santa, a small favela in a scarcely built-up area, controlled by the Terceiro Comando Puro drugs gang. Having misunderstood the local gang members’ order for the Dixon family to turn their car around and leave, they were then attacked and Eloise Dixon, 46, was shot twice in the abdomen and thorax. She was taken to hospital and is stable.

This is all to say that while it does not take away from the gravity of the incident, it is misleading to say that a British tourist was shot “in a Rio de Janeiro favela”, as it was in fact in a rural area some 150 km from the city. The violence in this particular case is shocking and outrageous, though it was sparked by language barriers in a place into which tourists would never be expected to step foot.

Regardless of the spurious links between this incident and the reality of properly urban favelas in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the case has reopened the debate about the safety (or lack of it) of these communities.

Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro

The history of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas dates back to the end of the 19th century and the abolition of slavery and decline of the coffee industry. Immigrants and former slaves flocked to the city in search of work, causing its central area to swell and become untenably dense. More often than not, these workers lived in cramped collective housing spaces known as cortiços, where dozens of people would literally be living on top of one another in large houses with poor sanitary conditions. Around the beginning of the 20th century, these people were pushed out of the center, with many cortiços being demolished by the local government. With nowhere to go, they began building precarious houses on the hills surrounding the city, previously thought to be uninhabitable due to their flimsy foundations.

As their populations grew and grew, the rest of the century saw some sporadic efforts to evict and demolish these hillside communities, but no programs to urbanize them and improve their standards of living. This general lack of attention from the government allowed the favelas to become home to the city’s drug traffickers, who took control of many of these communities and used them to conduct their business.

Rio’s leading drugs gang, the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), commandeered a large number of favelas where they recruited young men looking to earn money for themselves and their families, as well as improve their standing within the community. Only in the 21st century, with Rio set to host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, was there any sort of belated pushback from the local authorities, with the creation of the Police Pacification Units (UPPs) in 2008, a program which involved law enforcement “reclaiming” and “pacifying” territory which had long been held by drugs gangs.

While some UPPs have been deemed successful, drug trafficking and gang violence still remain a present threat in Rio. “The UPPs were never about cracking down on drugs”, says Alcysio Canette, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro. “It was about taking assault rifles out of the picture to make these places more tourist friendly. Drugs are still widely available.” Canette is a panelist on the “Lado B do Rio” (Rio B-Side) podcast, an opinionated discussion show on Rio de Janeiro politics, society and culture.

Journalist Sam Cowie was based in Rio de Janeiro during the beginning of the UPP program and witnessed first-hand the effects it had on the community of Rocinha, one of Rio’s biggest favelas, in 2011. “To a certain extent it was a good thing for some people. Nobody thinks it is healthy to have kids walking around wielding heavy firearms and the UPP solved that”, he explains. “There were others who were less keen, they saw the police as another armed and oppressive force in their community and often complained about them being hostile towards the residents.”

It was the disappearance of 43-year-old bricklayer Amarildo de Souza, in 2013, which drastically changed the public perception of the UPPs. De Souza, erroneously suspected of being involved in drug trafficking by the police, was brought in for questioning by UPP officers and was never seen again. “The Amarildo case was a turning point for the program, the locals began to revolt and the UPPs collapsed”, Cowie recalls. “You can’t expect change simply by putting armed men into the community, without at least creating jobs or social programs. Drug dealing remains the best opportunity for young men in the favela and the UPPs did nothing to alter that.”

Michael Jackson mural in Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro

The premise of this article, Are Rio’s favelas safe?, depends on the audience. For many people living in these communities, violence is a real and present danger, whether it be from warring drugs gangs or the military police. For tourists, the answer is quite different. “When tourists talk about favelas, they mean Santa Marta, Vidigal and a few others in the south zone of the city”, explains Canette. “These only make up around 2% of the total of Rio’s favelas.”

The communities Canette refers to, Santa Marta and Vidigal, are Rio’s so-called “safe favelas”. Both have undergone drastic processes of urbanization and even gentrification, with poorer residents no longer able to afford to live there.

Santa Marta, in the neighborhood of Botafogo, became famous when Michael Jackson filmed his music video for “They Don’t Care About Us” there in 1996. Since then it has been visited by a number of celebrities, including Madonna, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, as well as being used as a film set for the fifth installment of the Fast and Furious film franchise.

Vidigal, next to some of Rio’s most luxury and expensive apartments

Vidigal, on the slopes of Morro Dois Irmãos and in-between the swanky neighborhoods of Leblon and São Conrado, has also undergone significant urbanization and gentrification since the 2000s, with its superb views of the city and privileged location driving up the price of real estate.

There is no longer any significant drugs dispute there, and one of the biggest industries in these areas is, in fact, favela tourism.

Local people and tour operators have capitalized on people’s fascination with Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and in Santa Marta and Vidigal they run a huge number of tours around the community, claiming they offer the “reality of the slums” and an “enriching cultural experience”. Inevitably, many of these tours end up as voyeuristic jaunts by class-tourists to see how the other half lives, which would be far more problematic were these tours not bringing more people to the neighborhood and thus stimulating the community’s economy.

In summary, there is no clear answer to the question of whether or not Rio’s favelas are safe. Issues of violence persist in many of the city’s peripheral favelas, where struggles between rival gangs and police forces are persistent, but there are many sanitized and tourist-friendly favelas where foreign visitors are perfectly safe and welcome.

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