Inside the Favela Rocinha

If you read the safety instructions of the Foreign Office, one find filling pages warnings about Brazil that one should strongly consider. It’s particularly pointed out that there are frequently armed conflicts and robberies in the north of the country and in the big cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Tourists should never defend themselves in case of such an attack, but hand over their belongings unresisting. Many pickpockets, so-called “batetor de carteira” don’t hesitate to murder a person for a few Reais. Be it with a firearm, a knife or bare hands. Especially at night one should be extremely careful and never carry expensive valuables (including cameras and jewelry) or a larger amount of cash. The caixas eletrônicos, the Brazilian ATM, close at 22:00 o’clock. The reason for that is seemingly obvious.

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While the city centers are relatively safe at night, it seethes in the suburbs, the favelas. Hostile drug gangs trade fire and don’t even hesitate to shoot innocent bystanders, no matter if child, woman or man. The result: Thousands of wounded and dead people each year. Just in Rio de Janeiro. However, an end of the violence isn’t in sight. Although the Polícia Militar takes actions against the drug cartels, it seems that they can’t fight them. Because if one favela seems to be pacified, in another one the drug wars start over again. The reason is simple: The dealers simply change their hunting ground. Or rather: They escape unnoticed to another favela and make their businesses there.Tolerated by numerous police officers who get money out of the drug war and cover the alleged masterminds. This also happens in the favela Rocinha.

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Despite the fact that this favela in the Zona Sul in Rio de Janeiro is considered to be safe, one can still see drug dealers entering and leaving. Armed with hand grenades, rifles and pistols, which are just sold under the counter or on the black market in Brazil. Because in the South American country, the gun laws are that strict that even the parliamentarians wanted to enforce a more flexible law back in 2013. A veto of president Dilma Rousseff put an end to this discussion. Despite the fact that there are about 10 million illegal firearms circulating, which are probably in the hands of drug dealers and criminals.

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One Sunday morning against all the odds I wanted to visit these sink estates with my own eyes. Of course, we visited the favela accompanied by an experienced guide. Because without it would be pure suicide. Anyone who isn’t a moradores de favela is viewed with suspicion, robbed or even worse murdered – if one meets the wrong people. At the subway station “Ipanema” we met our guide, who wanted to show us the favela Rocinha. According to official estimates, in the formerly largest favela of Rio de Janeiro there live about 62,000 residents. The moradores even think that the number is much higher, at around 250,000. Almost all of them are employed, but can’t afford living in one of the better neighborhoods, because their salaries are too low. Housekeepers are also found among the moradores de favela such as cleaners, street vendors and waiters, so-called garçons and garçonetes. The guide also told us that many people in the favela come from the very poor northern states to Rio de Janeiro in the hope of earning more money which they can send back to their families.

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As we went up the hilly roads to Rocinha by bus, the social differences were already clearly seen. The closer we got, the poorer the streets and homes looked. Hard to imagine that a normal living is possible there. But the majority of the moradores de favela never gets out of this sink estate. One is born and will die at the same spot. Only for work they climb down the hills and escape to the other bairros. Some of them have even opened their own business in the favela. Whether grocers, bakers, hairdressers or electricians: All commercials appear to be at home there. A microcosm in the huge metropolitan area.
After the bus ride we went on walking. The guide told us that he is one of the few moradores de favelas who made it out of this area and now has an apartment in a “normal” bairro. A true rarity. But the social structures in Brazil are so strongly bonded that a rise out of poverty is difficult. Of course I was scared to take pictures at the favela tour. But our guide calmed me down and even said that Rocinha is completely peaceful after the major police operation in 2010. Due to the reports that I had read in advance, I doubted this fact. And I should be confirmed.

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From the bus station we went directly into the favela. Into the labyrinthine passages that just provides enough space for two people. Trash and excrement piled up on and next to the unpaved passageways. But these weren’t the only trip hazards. Because the passageways are just arranged makeshift and pragmatically, they are already a real torture for non-disabled people. Slippery stages alternate with spiky rocks and sewer tunnel holes. Inconceivable that there are elderly and disabled people living. But it happens. I met a man without feet who blazes the trail with the help of his hands, even goes shopping and manages his everyday life easily.

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Not just their irrepressible will to survive, but also their naivety characterizes the morades de favelas. They live from day to day, just thinking about how to earn more money which they can send to their relatives or how to be able to afford something for themselves. Because what they have are just the four stone walls they live in. And this isn’t really much. Especially when you consider how shabby these houses look from the outside. Makeshift assembled of scattered stones and cement and equipped with sanitary facilities and electricity. The range of cable pile up on the electricity poles like branches on a tree. Sometimes they are several meters high. A miracle that accidents rarely occur when one of the local electricians connects or disconnects a new conduction.

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It prevails a culture of turning a blind eye – to the litter, the illegal usage of electricity, the gambling, the murders and, indeed, the drug trade. During our favela tour we met two drug lords, as death squads they were fully armed, gathering in front of their homes. The gun always loaded and starring at all passersby. We were these passersby. A queasy and likewise dignified feeling captured me. And the worst thing was that these drug lords weren’t even 25 years old. Their life expectancy is on average even less than 40 years.

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I tried to hide my camera under my jacket as well as possible. Because what drug dealers even like less than the police are videos and pictures of them. The moradores de favela tolerate their presence. A simple trade: security against silence. The local drug dealers keep their area clean and expect respect from the others. Or rather holding their tongues. A cooperation with the police, most often, leads to certain death. Finally, the police often gets protection money from the drug lords and names the traitors. In return, the police won’t plan any further anti-drug operations – as far as it seems peaceful. And it is never peaceful, as long as people are shot on a regular base in the narrow passageways.

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