Brazil's World Cup facelift 'militarizing' the favelas

The army map for one of Rio's tougher favelas is colour-coded, Susan Ormiston reports: red for the drug zones, pink for stolen cars, black for shootouts. Not shown is the increasing anger of local residents over the militarization of their neighbourhoods.

On the army map, red is for drug zones, pink for stolen cars, black for the shootouts

Brazil cleaning up favelas ahead of World Cup

The National

7 years ago
Susan Ormiston travels to Rio to see how authorities are cleaning up the slums, known as 'favelas,' of Brazil ahead of the World Cup. 9:30

A convoy of military jeeps snakes up a hill in one of Rio de Janeiro's rougher neighbourhoods, passing by a sculpture of a giant soccer ball and a broken down abandoned soccer pitch.

Thirty Brazilian soldiers are on alert, their automatic rifles pointed outward, ready for an attack.

"Our main mission here is to stabilize the area, take out the drug dealers, get people back to normal life," says Col. Alex Correa, in near perfect English; he did some of his training at Canadian Forces College in Toronto.

The military has occupied the favela known as Mare de Complexo in the north part of Rio for the last two months. Tanks and troops patrol the narrow web-like streets, and sometimes residents throw stones at them, angry at the militarization of their community.

Watch Susan Ormiston's documentary report from inside Brazil's favelas tonight on The National

Over a million people live in poor, unregulated settlements like these — known as favelas — some of which have been hot zones for drug wars and violence.

Militias and gangs control many still, but with the World Cup bearing down on Rio, and the Olympics just two years away, the Brazilian government felt compelled to do something about its favelas, especially as some were close to tourist areas.

A man shelters his baby from gunshots as police and gang members fire on each other in Alemao, a favela in Rio, in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. (AF Rodrigues / CBC)

Col. Correa points to a neighbourhood map speckled with coloured dots — red for drug zones, pink for stolen cars and black for shootouts.

But when asked about his mission's relationship to the World Cup, he says "nothing to do with the World Cup, no," though conceding the timing is suspect. His operation officially concludes in July, just as soccer's grand tournament wraps up.

'False sense of security'

Mare, with its 130,000 people, is strategically squeezed between three main highways funnelling international visitors into the city centre. Local police had either lost control or been corrupted into ceding control to criminal leaders, officials say.

However, Adriano Rodrigues, a 35-year-old local photographer who has lived in Mare his entire life, scoffs at the army's rationale.

"This is the eve of the World Cup," he says. "For our leaders, the most important thing is to create a false sense of security. For all those who pass by, they need to have the sensation they're safe and won't be hit by a stray bullet."

Still, as he sees it, "everything that happened before in the favela is still happening since the occupation, only in a disguised way."

Brazil's army is now patrolling certain neighbourhoods, like Mare in Rio, saying it needs to stabilize them. (Susan Ormiston / CBC)

Rodrigues has documented the often violent demonstrations against the World Cup over the past two years. One photo shows a man cradling a child against his body as police and criminals shoot at each other.

The majority of favela residents are not running drugs or involved in other crimes, but they are vulnerable to the ongoing violence. And they also have other priorities — like better schools, sanitation and health care.

That helps explain, perhaps, why support for hosting the World Cup here in Brazil has plummeted to less than 50 per cent of those surveyed, according to a poll taken near the end of May.

Brazilians appear bitterly disappointed with the cost of playing host — $11 billion for a country where 16 million people live on less than $360 a year.

Every one of the 12 stadiums that have been newly built or refurbished for the tournament has soared above budget, some with a paper trail of inflated construction invoices.

Construction firms biggest scorers

The World Cup was sold to Brazilians as a golden opportunity for much needed investment in roads, airports and other transportation links, and even for improvements in the favelas, like sewers and clean water.

But the money has been mostly devoured meeting the demands of soccer's governing body, FIFA, for first-class stadiums and facilities. Construction firms could be the biggest World Cup winners.

"I think the population is very divided," says Patricia Vianna, executive director of REDES, a non-profit community group in Mare. "A lot of people love soccer of course, but because of a lot of disappointments they're not that excited about" the World Cup itself.

In April, the Brazilian government topped up its $860-million security budget by $100 million for Rio alone. Last week, it suddenly decided to add army reinforcements to protect hotels hosting soccer teams.

Infantry troops were sent to the Brazilian team's training camp after the team bus was set upon by protestors who plastered it with stickers saying "Whose World Cup."

Some of the visiting teams are staying in hotels just a few hundred metres from favelas like Vidigal, which is perched on a mountainside overlooking a sweep of Rio's stunning beaches.

But in Vidigal, security was tackled two years ago as part of an initiative called police pacification, which is a combination of SWAT teams and community police.

Over time it has pushed the drug dealers out, community leaders say, and gentrification is slowly creeping in. Rumour has it that soccer great David Beckham has just bought a cinderblock house here, presumably to turn into something more impressive.

For those without Beckham's wealth, but still seeking a taste of Brazil's wilder side, there are cheap rooms to book in what some would still call a slum.

The 'Favela Experience'

On a potholed winding street with a canopy of hot-wired electrical cables you will find a welcoming hostel called the Favela Experience.

Eliot Rosenberg, an American living in Rio, leads us up three sets of steep stairs to what can only be described as a million dollar view, a sweeping vista of the Atlantic ocean lapping against Leblon and Ipanema beaches.

The view from Rio's storied Ipanema beach towards the Vidigal neighbourhood where soccer star David Beckham is rumoured to have bought property. (Susan Ormiston / CBC)

It's the common room for guests.

Rooms here can cost as little as $15 for a single, except during the World Cup where you will pay $50 a night. The house is owned by a local community group and two thirds of the rental profits will go back to the charity for work inside the favela.

"A lot of the guests we have had said they feel safer inside the community instead of outside," says Rosenberg.

Brazil can't escape its violent reputation — 56,000 murders in 2012, considered an epidemic by UN standards. "If it's any consolation," says Rosenberg, "most of those are criminal against criminal or police."

A different pitch

From the terrace at Favela Experience we get a glimpse of a small cement soccer field ringed by walls covered in graffiti.

A vigorous game is in play, the boys booting around a dirty soccer ball with a few of its seams unravelling.

These 12-17 year olds are one of the better teams inside the favela. Their parents can't afford putting them in one of Rio's established soccer clubs, which develop young talent.

Enzo de Deus, a young soccer player in the Rio neighbourhood Vidigal, says the World Cup attention isn't trickling down to his soccer pitch. (Susan Ormiston / CBC)

They sure can't afford tickets to the World Cup. But the young players are still excited.

"It's marvellous," says Caio Rodrigues, a lanky teenager, sweating from the exertion. "It's our pride because we never have anything."

Still, asked whether the money spent to bring the world's best soccer here was worth it, they shake their heads emphatically no.

"It wasn't worth it because there are a lot of people suffering in hospitals," says Rodrigues.

The soccer boys from the favelas will watch the games on television or on big screens set up on the beach.

They won't get close to Rio's legendary Maracana Stadium even if Brazil makes the final.

As one of them quietly chimed in before we left, "They won't leave anything for us. If they were going to leave anything better for us, well, look at our field."


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.


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