The truth behind the City of God..
17.07.2008 - 17.07.2008
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"Não, not you. Her."
The moto-taxi driver winked and gestured to the brunette behind me, ushering me in the direction of his colleagues. Two humiliating rejections later, I secured myself a ride and we began our trip into the heart of Latin America's largest favela.
What followed was perhaps the scariest journey of my life (bear in mind I've been travelling in South America for the past 3 months..) as we raced through the shanty-town, ducking alarmingly in and out of the on-coming traffic. Finally, breathlessly, we came to a stop. We had arrived.
Favela Rocinha (O-seen-ya), just like all of Rio de Janeiro's many slums, sprang from nothing. Thousands of migrants from the countryside and ex-slaves, forced by poverty and hunger to the Ciudad Maravillhosa, simply seized a patch of vacant Atlantic rainforest and built. And built. As more people poured in, the buildings grew higher and the streets narrower. Today, the favela is home to over 200,000 of Brazil's poorest people.
As I hopped off the motorbike and waved goodbye to my maniac of a driver, my nostrils were assaulted by the smell of raw sewage - a powerful reminder that the favelas were (and in many cases, still are) rarely ever recognized by the government. As such, very few of the favelados pay tax; in turn, the government refuses to provide them with even the most basic services. Most of the electricity and water used in the favela is illegally tapped from the grid and most of the neighbourhood's garbage and sewage lies rotting in Rocinha's labyrinthine backstreets. In fact, virtually the only thing that the government does commit to is free education for all of the favela's children - an offer that, for reasons I will come onto later, is often rejected.
After a short walk, we reached a vantage point at the top of the hill. From here, the entire favela unfolded beneath our eyes: higgledy-piggledy houses, painted brightly and crammed together, competing as it were for a share of the precious sunshine. There were kites as well, fluttering and dancing on the gentle mid-afternoon breeze, their owners practising for the evening's kite-fights. What really struck me though, was the gap between rich and poor. Just over the road from the favela lie some of Rio's most exclusive beachfront flats, home to many of the city's wealthiest and most important people. All that separates them from Rocinha is a single dual carriageway, yet the two neighbourhoods are worlds apart.
These days, Rocinha's colourful façade hides something more sinister. The favela is run by the gang ADA (Amigo dos Amigos), one of Rio's three major gangs. According to our guide, the man in charge is an agreeable thirty-something called Nate, who lives, along with all his henchmen, firmly within the favela's confines. The police estimate that there are around 2,500 ADA living in Rocinha and that their slice of Rio's booming drug scene generates the gang about $5m a month in profit. As we ambled down winding alleyways, we passed men - and boys - carrying walkie-talkies and bags full of fireworks and guns. These were the dogsbodies of the organisation, constantly on the look out for cops and rival gangmembers. The gang runs the favela with an iron fist, clamping down on petty crime to make sure that wealthy outsiders feel safe buying drugs inside. In our guide's words, the same man who will mug you on Copacabana beach will do nothing more than shake your hand in Rocinha. After hearing about the ADA's form of street justice, the notorious micro-ondas, microwave, (which involves putting a live person, soaked in petrol, into a ring of flaming car tires, thereby carbonizing the victim's body), I can see why.
The most tragic thing is that the ADA - and other gangs like it - suck young men in, luring them with the promise of easy money and fast living. Once in, these men are little more than pawns in organisations driven by alcohol, cocaine and machismo (you can find a video put up by a gangmember here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nKyy9oXDQg&feature=related). Many die and for those lucky enough to survive, there is nothing to fall back on. Even the most successful gang-members rarely reach their forties - it's hardly a profession with a pension plan..
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom in Rocinha. At the present moment, there are about 10 NGOs actively working to improve conditions for the favela's inhabitants. The organisation that runs the tour is one of them; as part of our visit, we were taken to see the nursery that they had built with tourist dollar. As one would imagine, the place was full of adorable Brazilian toddlers (not to forget the single token gringo baby) and it genuinely seemed like our money was being well spent. As we left, the kids piped up and began to chatter away.
We walked out of Rocinha with their goodbyes in our ears.