Buda Mendes / Getty Images
America TonightMon-Fri 9:30pm ET/6:30pm PT
Buda Mendes / Getty Images

Turning Rio's favelas into a tourist attraction

Ahead of the World Cup, Brazil has been giving its favelas a makeover; but not all residents want to be '€˜pacified'

RIO DE JANEIRO – Selete Martins has lived her whole life in the Dona Marta favela. Before the World Cup and Olympics were awarded to Rio de Janeiro, Martins sold sodas, hamburgers and hot dogs. With billions of tourist dollars about to pour into the country, and the favela now safer, she’s starting a new job leading tours of Dona Marta – a career that was once unheard of in this area. 

“I’m working here within my community,” said Martins, “getting my income from here, and I get to spend more time with my family.”

Just a few years ago, Martins’ business wouldn’t have been possible in one of Rio’s oldest favelas. “It had quite a significant amount of violence taking place in it,” said Robert Muggah, a security analyst. “Had you been here 10 years ago  –like I was – and attended a party or had walked by Dona Marta, you’d often find yourself ducking or dodging or avoiding windows so as not to get [hit] by a stray bullet.”

In preparation for this year’s World Cup, Brazil has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on police crackdowns in these communities, in a program known as “pacification.” Dona Marta is a kind of showcase for the project, but inside views are divided. Such a swift makeover, they say, comes at a heavy price. 

Who are the thugs?

Of all Brazil’s social ills laid bare by playing host to two world sporting events, violence is one of the starkest. “There are 50,000 people killed every single year in this country – 30,000 of those people are killed by gunshot injuries,” said Robert Muggah, a security analyst. “Brazil is not just a world champion in football. It’s also the world champion in homicides.”

In the years leading up to the World Cup, one could hear the heavily armed police exchanging rounds with resident drug traffickers in Rio's favelas. These are the images the country didn’t want the world to see leading up to this year’s World Cup.

Police during a raid in one of Rio's favelas.
Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

Enter the Police Pacification Unit, also known as U.P.P., an elite group of officers whose military-style raids have come in reaction to the violence. They have become a part of life in dozens of Rio’s favelas, tightly-packed hillside communities, with spectacular views of the city and a better life below.

The program, which launched in 2008, was designed to bring a new community face to Rio’s notoriously repressive military police, Muggah said.

“But really, at the heart of this model is the idea that the police go into a community, and they move in permanently,” he explained.

And the U.P.P. is still upholding the traditions of Rio’s military police, which are notorious for being some of the most violent police in the world.

“For every 37 arrests that the military police undertake in this city,” said Muggah, “there’s somebody who dies in the course of that arrest.”

Douglas Pereira, a dancer and well-known TV personality who was allegedly shot during a police raid in April, is among the latest victims. Pereira, 26, was visiting his daughter, who lives in a favela in the south of Rio with her birth mother, when he was allegedly shot by police during a raid.

“Douglas was a happy boy, smiling through everything,” said Mae Pereira, his mother. “He taught kids in the neighborhood choreography and music.”

His body was found just footsteps away from Rio’s famous Copacabana Beach. News of his death spread like wildfire, sparking angry protests around the city directed at the police.

“The police we have here are killers,” Pereira’s mother said. “Police who kill, who lie, and this process of pacification is to bring in money to government. It’s not to pacify or educate anyone from the favela.” She added: “It’s something to fool the tourists who come here to show them they are protected. They are not protected. The thugs are the ones in the uniforms.”

The evictions

In Brazil, it’s a common feeling that the government cares more about profiting from the World Cup than the welfare of ordinary citizens. That feeling erupted last summer in a million-strong protest across several cities. And for many residents, pacification is living proof of that fact.

Victor is a lifelong Dona Marta resident and die-hard soccer fan. His family has been here for five generations. He says the raids – and all the money being spent on the tournament – have soured his love for the game.

“We were one of the first families to help create Dona Marta,” he said. “The U.P.P. arrived five years ago, but many of us have not received the investment and services we expected.”

Police have also simply evicted local families. It often comes with little warning, a simple tag on each house, with three letters to alert the city housing authority. Victor’s family lives in a part of Dona Marta slated for eviction.

“I’m not trash to be thrown aside, marked and removed and expelled from these areas,” Victor said. “We are human beings. We are favela residents.”

About an hour outside Rio, America Tonight found the victims of a recent eviction, now living in tents inside a local church gymnasium. Hector, one of the displaced favela residents, said the residents have nowhere else to go.

“They came while we were sleeping and made us leave by force, just kicking us out of our homes,” Hector said. “Now, none of us have houses or income. We lost everything, but the World Cup stadiums are all getting renovated.”

Police distrust

The pacification program has encountered more resistance as it’s expanded to other favelas in much larger communities north of Rio. Assaults on police bases and a rise in murders and fire-bombings prompted Brazilian authorities to send in military reinforcements.

“In the north zone of Rio, there’s torture, a lot of unnecessary killings,” said Theresa Williamson, who runs a local non-profit that’s been monitoring the U.P.P. program for several years. “And as a result, there’s been a huge backlash by residents in those communities, young people protesting. And communities stopped calling it pacification, and they’re calling it occupation.”

While violence has sapped a lot of confidence in the pacification program, the security gains in certain areas remain evident. Once known as a violent drug haven, Dona Marta is now mostly a haven for the poor. It’s been more than five years since Martins has seen any friends die due to drug-related violence. She credits U.P.P. for this culture change.

“Before, we had many funerals of friends who grew up with me,” she said. “Today, thank God, I don’t have to bury any more friends.”

Police no longer are in constant gun battles to protect the favelas. Now, it's more of a 24-hour presence in an effort to protect the residents.
Christophe Simon / AFP / Getty Images

Police overseeing the Dona Marta favela told America Tonight that their jobs have shifted from gun battles and mass arrests to more of a 24-hour security presence, in hopes of protecting people. But it’s hard for favela residents to trust a police force they’ve traditionally seen as the enemy. Across the country, 70 percent of Brazilians don’t trust the police, according to a 2013 survey by the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.

“We have a 200-year-old police force that has never been reformed,” Williamson said. “The U.P.P., the pacification police, is the first attempt at that. But you have to look back at the history and realize the police here were created in a time to do three things: to protect the monarchy, to protect property – including slaves, and take them back – and to repress rebellion. And that’s essentially what the police are still doing.”

Most favela residents aren’t involved in drugs or gangs, and many see the focus on policing, and the World Cup’s $11 billion price tag, as an insult to their priorities, like better schools, healthcare and sanitation.

Walking through the Dona Marta, stores line the streets, selling T-shirts to tourists. But right next to those shops is an open sewer.

“Obviously, it has its pros and cons, but it’s still a process,” Martins said. “It’s only been five years. We don’t just need security. We need other things as well – health, education, lots of things that we still don’t have.”

For the thousands of soccer fans who will flock to Rio for the World Cup, the favelas may be a colorful attraction made safer through the government’s pacification effort. But many wonder what will happen when the Olympics are over and of the world is no longer looking toward Brazil.

Two days after his death, Douglas Pereira’s mother found a note hidden away in his back pocket. In it, the final lyrics of a young son and beloved member of the local community.

“In the favela, many discriminate against us,” he wrote. “There is prejudice, and the people will tolerate it. But we are sons of the same father, creator of the earth, who is in the hearts of all the people in the favela.”

Editing by Timothy Bella

Related News

World Cup

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


World Cup

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter