Brazil’s favela fairy tale: When Prince Charming packs heat

by November 24, 2014 5:00AM ET

The debutante ball hosted by Rio’s Police Pacification Unit turns girls into princesses for a day

Teenage girls from the Cerro-Cora favela before their debutante ball, organized by their community’s Police Pacification Unit, at Ilha Fiscal castle in Rio de Janeiro, Nov. 6, 2014.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
Marcelle Rosa dances with one of the officers from the police unit.
Rafael Fabres

RIO DE JANEIRO — As Marcelle Rosa, 15, walked onto the dance floor, she looked like a modern-day princess. She was wearing a pink and black ball gown with a tightly laced corset and a tiara on top of her coiffed curls. Suddenly, a man in a pressed uniform took her by the hand and led her in a waltz. She could not stop smiling.

Rosa and a group of her closest friends were living any girl’s fairy tale, far, far away from the favela they call home. While the night was everything she would have dreamed, she never imagined her Prince Charming would be an officer from Rio de Janeiro’s military police.

The music switched from Tchaikovsky to Brazilian funk, and the teenagers let go of their partners. With each beat, the girls bounced and gyrated, swishing their long dresses on the floor. A group of female police officers joined the dance circle and shimmied with the girls.

This was the Cerro-Corá favela’s debutante ball, organized by the fairy godmothers of the local Police Pacification Unit, or UPP.

“We wanted them to feel like royalty,” said officer Daniela Chagas, who came up with the idea. “For two months we prepared and rehearsed so they could have a proper 15th birthday party.”

The girls arrive at the event in a pink limousine.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

In Brazil, 15 is the age when a young girl is debuted into society as a woman. The occasion is often commemorated with extravagant and expensive parties. In order to achieve this goal, Chagas and other officers asked for donations from local vendors. The Copacabana Palace Hotel, one of the most exclusive properties in the city, offered a room where the young ladies could prep. Shop owner Monique Gracielle provided the dresses and a hair and makeup team. The caterer Aquim supplied hors d’oeuvres, and a local choreography duo helped with the dance moves.

To complete the Cinderella story, a pink SUV limousine drove the 13 participating girls to Ilha Fiscal, an island castle on Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay. The neo-Gothic landmark was the site of the Portuguese monarchy’s final gala before Brazil became a republic, in 1889.

“I don’t want this night to end,” Rosa said as she took a break from dancing in her platform pumps. “I just want to keep living in this dream.”

The debutantes try on their tiaras before the ball.
Rafael Fabres
Much of the food and drink for the event was donated by local vendors.
Rafael Fabres

Rio de Janeiro’s UPP program was inaugurated in 2008. It was designed to reclaim state control of favelas that had fallen under the dominion of armed drug gangs.

The program has since been implemented in 38 shantytowns throughout the city. While many, like Rosa and her fellow debutantes, have embraced the program, others have been critical of its effectiveness in fighting crime. 

Some of Rio’s larger favelas have seen a recent surge in violence. Shootouts between UPP officers and criminal gangs have terrorized supposedly pacified neighborhoods once again, and some of the officers have been accused of brutality against residents.  

According to a study released earlier this week by the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, 416 people died last year in Rio de Janeiro state during shootouts involving police — the highest rate per capita in the country.

A series of corruption scandals has rocked the military police, the organization that oversees the UPPs. At least 48 officers have been questioned or arrested over connections with clandestine militias and drug gangs. The UPP’s former commander Jose Luis Castro Menezes is under investigation in a money-laundering scheme.

“This is a good moment to make changes,” Rio de Janeiro state Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame said during a recent press conference. “This doesn’t mean we are getting rid of the UPP program. We are simply making adjustments.”

The possible adjustments come under the same state leadership that has been in power for the past eight years. Beltrame served first under Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sérgio Cabral, and now under Luis Fernando Pezão, Cabral’s former vice governor, who was elected to lead the state in October.

“We are reviewing the plan because our targets and goals have changed. The drug traffickers have adapted their methods. We need to adapt as well,” Beltrame said. “The UPP continues to be one of the pillars of our security plan because we believe it is still the best way to reduce crime.”

Rosa, in yellow, and Gabriela Andrade, in the Cerro Corá favela.
Rafael Fabres

The Cerro Corá UPP launched in June 2013 with 232 officers. The favela is in Rio’s south zone, within steps of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue. It is home to 4,500 people, including Marcelle Rosa and her family.

Three days after the debutante ball, her life was back to reality. Her dress had been replaced by a yellow tank top and denim shorts, and her updo was a messy bun. The smile she wore throughout the party had faded.

The apartment she shares with seven other family members was flooded by the previous night’s rain. Her raggedy mattress was drying on an empty window sill, and the smell of accumulated rubbish wafted into the living room. A small white crib was in the corner.

“This is where my daughter sleeps,” Rosa said. “She is the real princess in this house.”

Rosa, left, holds her daughter, Ana Alice. With her is her sister and fellow debutante Rayane Rosa and her baby.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

Ana Alice was born 18 months ago, when Rosa was 14. The early pregnancy forced her to drop out of high school and launched her into womanhood a bit earlier than expected.

Her sister, Rayane, who is nine months younger, was also one of the belles at the ball. She too has an infant, Davi Luiz.

“It is really important for me to see my girls being girls,” said Regiane Rosa, the two teenagers’ mother. “There are things I simply can’t provide them with. I think that night was really important for their confidence and self-esteem.”

Gabriela Andrade, left, at home with her nephew and sister-in-law.
Rafael Fabres

For Gabriela Andrade, the youngest of the debutantes, it was an opportunity to find her place in the neighborhood. As she sat on the orange couch in her grandmother’s living room, she took her tiara out of a cardboard box and placed it on her head. She examined the shiny plastic crystals in a mirror and began to tear up.

“Up until this party, I really didn’t have a lot of friends here,” she said as she wiped her eyes with the back of her wrists. “Now I have this great group of people, including the UPP officers.”

Andrade said that in the past, she never would have considered being friends with police officers. She had always avoided making eye contact with the officers who patrolled her neighborhood.

Cerro Corá used to be controlled by the Red Command gang, one of the most powerful in Rio. Although incidents of violence were low in the favela, resident gangsters would often rob tourists visiting the Christ statue and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.

“I have family that used to be involved with the drug gangs here. After the UPP arrived, they straightened out,” Andrade said. “Some of them are still doing bad things, and I don’t judge them. It doesn’t mean I’m going to dislike the police, though."

Rosa, second from right, drinks a toast with the other girls upon arriving at the party.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

As the sun fell on Cerro Corá, Marcelle Rosa had to pick up Ana Alice soon from the local day care center and cast off the memories of her debutante ball.

A makeshift amusement park had been set up in the center. Dozens of families lined up to play. Children bounced on a red trampoline in one corner, and others began an intense game of table tennis.

A radio played tunes from a local samba station, the sound crackling from worn-out speakers. At one point, one of the station’s announcers interrupted the music for a news bulletin. A shootout between drug traffickers and UPP officers had broken out in the Rocinha favela, also in Rio’s southern zone. At least two people suffered gunshot wounds.

As Rosa and Andrade walked up one of Cerro Corá’s steep hills, they hooked arms and began giggling like schoolgirls. When they turned a corner, three uniformed officers with rifles stood in their path. As they passed the men, the teenagers waved and smiled like two princesses on a parade float.

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the spelling of Gabriela Andrade's last name.