Playing Rio

Rio is a city of glamour and glitz—but also of poverty and violence in the favelas that climb its hills. With the Olympics coming in 2016, the slums are getting a face-lift.

This story appears in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“We are guinea pigs,” declares Fabio do Amaral, a drug-gang killer turned evangelical minister. Brother Fabio preaches at a church in Santa Marta, one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. What he means is that the citizenry of Santa Marta is part of a plan to clean up the hillside slums for the 2016 Olympics.

The experiment was set in motion in November 2008, when special operations police invaded the slum, a collection of brick and cinder block houses rising like a rickety skyscraper threaded with footpaths ascending 788 steps along a steep incline below the famed Christ the Redeemer statue. Unlike your usual Rio police assault on favela drug dealers—a bloody hit-and-run using armored trucks known as “big skulls”—a contingent of 112 “pacification officers” arrived in Santa Marta that December and stayed to restore order and evict the gang. Then the government built brightly colored apartment blocks and installed new electrical service along with 700 free refrigerators. These days, the place is overrun by film crews and such red carpet visitors as Madonna and John McCain. (Many Brazilian tourists visit too, often entering a favela for the first time.)

Brother Fabio used to be part of the problem. Born in the slum in 1973, he grew up to be a hit man with the nickname “Bananeira” because he reminded people of a banana tree, walking the favela steps on his hands with his feet splayed in the air. He found faith with the help of a local nun, but full reform didn’t happen overnight. “I believe in gradual repentance,” says Fabio, flashing white teeth as he restrains two pit bulls that live on his roof. He looks like Mike Tyson dressed in church clothes: a short-sleeved yellow shirt and black nylon dress pants.

When he’s not preaching, Fabio chases down men with flip-flops and cracked toes to sign them up for construction-worker training classes. That’s a big step for people who, in Rio terms, were lixo, human garbage. Now companies aren’t afraid to hire them. There’s more respect. But it’s still not luxurious living. Signs at Santa Marta’s entrance warn of dengue, and “high up there it’s only sorrows,” says Fabio, pointing to the shanties on the hill, beyond the reach of social programs, where some still cook outside on open fires.

Rio needed the solution to an economic puzzle involving low wages, poor public transport, a weak state, and income distribution about as fair as a tin-pot kleptocracy’s. “It happens in the whole world, but I would say here the dose was greater,” says José Mariano Beltrame, state secretary of public security.

Beltrame is a principal author of the “pacification plan,” meant to occupy the slums and push out the gangs with a force of some 12,500 pacification officers in 165 communities by 2014 for the soccer World Cup. Beltrame hopes to leave behind a functioning civilian state with a legal economy after the Olympics in 2016. Many citizens with high hopes believe Beltrame is the first security chief who is not corrupt. He’s not from Rio either; his accent—and the gourd of maté tea tucked under his desk—is the mark of a straight-talking gaucho from Brazil’s southern plains. “I understood that we had to have a plan, not a bunch of opinions,” says Beltrame. “The solution, without any doubt whatsoever, is what I am doing.”

In other slums now occupied by police, life has improved. Children are playing again in the streets. Friends will come for a visit. Yet people are still suspicious. One of Fabio’s fellow preachers, Sérgio Souza de Andrade, led me to the church basement to explain. “People don’t want to say so, but our greatest fear is that tomorrow will be like yesterday,” he says. “What will happen when the police leave?”

Consider Cantagalo, an amphitheater-shaped favela with sweeping views of Rio, where drug traffickers made the rules for roughly 35 years. Their spray-painted slogans, on building walls now covered with less violent graffiti by local artists, announced: “We are the crazies” or “Psychos are born here.” Since police took over in December 2009, gang members have no longer been carrying unconcealed weapons. But they may not all have left either. “They’re up there somewhere,” says Luiz Bezerra do Nascimento, the community association president, waving a hand toward the top of the hill. Everyone is still sorting out the new roles. “We had to respect them before because they were the authority. Now I tell them, ‘You don’t rule here anymore. The police do.’”

The police are more welcome, if not beloved, in Cantagalo these days, partly because of a big publicity effort. It’s a strategy as old as military occupations, explained Capt. Leonardo Nogueira, who runs the local pacification unit. He was tossing candy out a window in police headquarters to a horde of children while a local TV crew filmed. “The children who live here without the influence of drug traffic will be different people. We want to come back here in 20 years and find that they’re not like their parents,” Nogueira says.

In a way, with gangs gone, it’s every man for his capitalistic self. Electricity in Santa Marta used to come free via a tangle of wires. Now everyone pays bills. But why does the amount go up and down so much every month? Real estate prices are soaring too. Nearby in more upscale Botafogo, once terrorized by stray bullets, apartment prices have more than doubled. Students and foreigners want a shack with a view in Santa Marta.

Despite the early success of the pacification plan, Rio’s poor distrust many government efforts to reshape the city. Tempers rise periodically, as when workers began building a multimillion-dollar plastic and concrete wall along the Linha Vermelha highway a couple of years ago. Officials called it a sound barrier, but critics denounced it as a vanity screen to hide the squalid creeks of Complexo da Maré, an expanse of houses built on marshland, where residents used to clamber onto the highway leading from the airport to sell peanuts and cell phone chargers.

Similar doubts surround the coming Olympics spectacle. Half the new arenas and facilities will be in Barra da Tijuca, a Miami-like middle-class refuge full of cars and malls about 20 miles from the city center. Here the poor are less in evidence, and strangely, the charm of the cidade maravilhosa, the “marvelous city” that invented the world’s great tropical brands—Carmen Miranda, “The Girl From Ipanema”—is also absent. The place is known as “the Rio that forgot it is Rio.” A Spanish academic named Jordi Borja, who studies mega-events and has advised Rio’s government, says, “You should use the games to improve the inner city, not the suburbs, to reduce inequalities, and to do urbanism in favor of the poor.”

Certainly some real money is reaching impoverished areas, to good effect. In Cantagalo, two soaring elevators wrapped in colorful steel tubes now connect the upper reaches of the slum to the street. And the Complexo do Alemão, a confused agglomeration of several favelas that has been a main redoubt of the Red Command, Rio’s largest gang, was recently abuzz with workers funded by a federal program. They erected a few thousand new apartments and a sports complex, and have completed work on an immense cable car system, based on the one in Medellín, Colombia, spanning the hills.

Some hope such structures will be like the London Tube or the Brooklyn Bridge: symbolizing civic values, the opening up of the slums, and the return of civil rights to all Cariocas, as Rio’s residents call themselves. But others say it’s asking too little of Rio—dominated as it is by natural wonders and human drama—to expect man-made structures to represent the city’s aspirations, as the Bird’s Nest declared Chinese power during the Beijing Olympics. Plus, people are sure the money will somehow be stolen, and they point to the City of Arts. The city that turned samba into a spectacle created a $250 million boondoggle: an immense, gloomy, concrete music hall in Barra da Tijuca that, ten years into construction, has yet to sound a note.

If you are looking for an Olympic legacy, how about a city where people live in peace? Since this is Rio, everyone says look to Carnival for answers. The festival is a time of inversion, a chance to stand the world on its head. “This is a city of celebration,” says Mayor Eduardo Paes, “but we have to organize it. Carnival represents the kind of organized disorder we’re trying to copy.” During Carnival’s big parades the poor dress as kings, beach-neighborhood socialites tear their clothes to parade as beggars, and 60,000 participants and close to a hundred floats—orchestrated and on time—samba like clockwork until dawn.

But Carnival is once a year. And even the big push to change Rio for the Olympics will eventually come to an end. Then the future of the favelas may rest in the hands of people like Brother Fabio, with his message of personal redemption. His church stands next to a plaza with a statue of Michael Jackson; it’s where the pop star recorded the music video “They Don’t Care About Us.” The church is full of poor children, and adults who can’t escape from drugs. On a day when the building’s metal shutters are closed against wet ocean wind, Fabio’s voice booms over a tinny PA system. “The flesh is weak,” he sings out, “and the spirit is strong.” It is his fanfare for the common man, his dream for the favelas that shaped him.