Your UBER is arriving. A black FIAT pulls up, I open the door and sit down, closing my eyes in anticipation for the long drive home. Vidigal? The driver asks with a shaky voice. I nod in accordance. No he firms states. I was assaulted and robbed there and I am scared. Get another UBER. Period. No argument. Frustrated, I exit the UBER and am soon on my way home in another UBER. But as we pull up to the entrance of the favela, the driver stop abruptly and turns around: I am not going into the favela. It’s not safe.
I originally wanted to write an article that outlined my daily life in the Vidigal favela. But as I started to write about the history behind the favelas, to give my readers more context about the situation, I realized that I needed to write a full article with a brief [and I mean incredibly brief] historical outline of favelas and the people that live inside them. It is only when understand the past that we can fully comprehend the problems and issues of the present. So here we go:
A favela is a slum in Brazil, within urban areas. The first favelas appeared in the late 19th century and were built by soldiers who had nowhere to live. Some of the first settlements were called bairros africanos (African neighbourhoods). They were the places where former slaves with no land ownership and no options for work lived. However, the most modern favelas appeared in the 1970s due to a rural exodus, where individuals, who left rural areas and moved to cities, were unable to find places to live, thus ending up in favelas.
The majority of favelas can be found in Sao Paulo and in Rio de Janeiro. Rio, in particular, has had a tumultuous history with favelas and residents of favelas. During the 60s and 70s the Brazilian government decided to deal with the “favela problem” by implementing a removal program that resettled residents to the periphery of the city. The reason for this resettlement was primarily due to the fact that the majority of these slums were located on inner city land in Rio’s most affluent neighbourhoods. As a result, these properties were the perfect spot for lucrative commercial and residential construction ventures. The removal program eventually failed, but not before displacing hundreds of thousand of residents. This era of displacement was later popularized in the 2002 film City of God [Cidade de Deus], which is an actual neighbourhood founded in 1960s, planned and executed by the government of Guanabara State as part of the removal program. Many were displaced during this period of time, but some succeeded in resisting the removal through community organizing, such as Vidigal favela, and today can be found walking distance of some of the most popular touristic regions of Rio de Janeiro.
Another issue began to arrive in the 90s. Changing routes of production and consumption meant that Rio de Janeiro became a transit point for cocaine that was destined for Europe. This new drug trade sparked the rise of small arms trade and the creation of multiple gangs that competed for dominance.
In attempt to control the violence and drug trafficking the Rio government launched “Operation Rio” [from November 1994 to mid-1995], an operation that was punctuated by torture, arbitrary mentions, warrantless searches and a unnecessary use of lethal once. According to Human Rights Watch  “the agreement launched an unprecedented joint military-police effort, dubbed Operation Rio, to sweep away Rio de Janeiro’s criminal gangs. Operation Rio forces engaged in dozens of occupations – many lasting several days – of the favelas in the city of Rio as well as outlying areas, including the Baixada Fluminense and Niteroi. In its first two and a half months, Operation Rio’s most intense period, troops and police detained and arrested more than 500 people, seized some 300 firearms, and captured seventy-four kilos of marijuana and more than seven kilos of cocaine. Drug trafficking in the favelas was temporarily disrupted. Most observers believe, however, that drug traffickers resumed business as usual as soon as the troops withdrew from the favelas.” In the end, the operation was not successful in the long term and nowadays many of Rio favelas are still ruled by drug traffickers or by organized crime groups.
Side note. Have you ever watched Tropa de Elite? I watched it, thinking that this was something that people made up to make for good television. HOWEVER, the BOPE [Special Police Operation Battalian] does in fact exist and was created in 1978. Check out the trailer for the movie below:
In 2008, the Pacifying Police Unit [Unidade de Policia Pacificado][UPP] division was created to control the situation within favelas. The establishment of a UPP division within a favela is started by the BOPE, who enter into the favelas to arrest or drive out gang leaders before being replaced with regular police officers specifically trained for the purpose of working within a favela. The problem is that the BOPE — trained to deal with the extremes of Brazil’s drug gangs — has been accused of extra-judicial killings, kidnappings and torture by human rights groups. Therefore, although the UPP has presence in many Rio favelas, the trust in these police units by the residents can at times be limited.
So what is the reality of favelas in Rio today?
There are an estimated 600 different favelas in the state of Rio de Janeiro and census data released in December 2011 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, shows that in 2010 about 6% of the population [that means 11.4 million individuals] lived in slums. The fact that the UPP has pacified the favelas does not necessarily mean that drug traffickers or organized crime groups do not still operate within these regions. In many instances the drug lords and police officers operate in the same space, however the presence of the UPP in some favelas, has created a new phenomenon, an increase of tourism that has been implemented in various favelas across the city. Nowadays, individuals can walk around Vidigal or Rocinha, take a tour, eat some lunch or even stay in a hostel or homestay.
Ethical questions aside [for now], these experiences can draw awareness to the needs of the residents, while giving tourists a new view on a popular destination. While drug dealing, sporadic gun fights and residual control from drug lords still remain, the issue of safety is a tricky thing to explain:
As Adam Newman, founder of Favela Experience, states “how do you explain that even with the possibility of drug dealing and sporadic gun fights, Vidigal favela is incredibly safe. It’s actually safer to stay here than in Copacabana beach.”
The situation within a favela is hard to summarize in one article [if you want to learn more visit: Rio on Watch]. From a violent historical past, mistrust in a police force hired to protect them and ending in a society that has chosen to forget about them, residents have gone through a lot. And yet, here I am, a gringa from Canada sitting in the middle of the Vidigal favela – laughing, talking, eating and sharing with the favelados and having the best time of my life. Sometimes it’s best to turn off the tv and see for yourself. Is there a risk? Of course. Am I afraid? No. Come see another side of Rio here in the favela.
Want to learn more about my life in Vidigal? [coming soon]