Hidden cities

Jan 26, 2000 at 12:00 am

The plastic bag on the television antenna may signal that police are in the area. It could mean a drug shipment has arrived. Or it may simply be litter. In the slums – or favelas – of Rio de Janeiro, you take nothing for granted.

Rio is famous for the world’s wildest Carnival celebrations, but those bacchanals hide a dark side. The best musicians, the tanga-clad samba dancers and the exuberant floats all originate in Rio’s favelas.

"Favelas have a bad and exaggerated reputation for being poor and dangerous places where outsiders should never go," says Marcelo Armstrong, a gutsy 31-year-old Brazilian who left a job at Club Med to launch his own company guiding tourists through the favelas.

Rio’s shantytowns are usually depicted as lawless enclaves run by drug lords and rife with violence and mayhem. In truth, they are tightly organized microcommunities. Certainly, they operate with a parallel system of law, but they have their own bus services, legal offices, medical clinics, schools and entrepreneurs.

Armstrong’s five-hour tours often begin with a drive through the swanky Sao Conrado neighborhood of luxury high-rises, five-star hotels and a golf course overlooking a spectacular beach. It’s home to Brazil’s last Central Bank president, a former Rio mayor, a former president, the ex-wife of another former president and a past governor. Perched over this amalgamation of wealth sits Rio’s most famous favela: Rocinha.

Climbing up the sheer sides of a mountain, Rocinha is crammed with squatters’ houses. Those at the lowest levels, closest to roads and public services, are made of concrete and brick. The higher up the hill, however, the more precarious the construction.

Within these homes live 60,000 people, if you believe the government, or 200,000 if you believe the favela dwellers. Either way, it’s the single largest shantytown on the continent.

"You are welcome here, so don’t be shy and don’t feel you are intruding," Armstrong says after explaining that most Rio residents have never ventured into a favela. "The people here want to show you their neighborhood is not a ghetto. And you won’t be robbed or kidnapped. They want to change that stigma."

Then, Armstrong outlines the rules of his tour: No video cameras and no still photos without permission, as poor Brazilians fear undercover police will infiltrate the tour groups. Before driving higher into the favela, Armstrong tells his group to unlock his van’s doors and roll down the windows "as a sign of trust."

Suddenly, they’re in a city within a city. Doctor’s offices, dental clinics and legal offices sit along narrow streets among budget shoe stores, bakeries and corner grocery shops. Satellite dishes and legal cable connections poke from the architectural confusion. Bags of garbage fill the trash collection point where a city truck will stop for a refuse pickup.

The order belies a dark underside. Telephone poles are top-heavy with illegal electrical connections. The letters "CV" are spray painted on walls, marking the territory of the Comando Vermilho, or Red Command, the city’s oldest organized crime group. The serpentine streets are confusing mazes that make it difficult for police to pursue suspects.

Many of the homes have running water thanks to the water tower erected by drug dealers born and raised in Rocinha.

"They’re not good boys, but they’re different from the police. They kill people for a reason. The police just kill," Armstrong says, referring to the brutal reputation of Rio’s law enforcement officials. The drug traffickers, many of whom remain in Rocinha even when they can afford to live elsewhere, maintain order in the community.

"They won’t let people squat on private land. They don’t want the police coming in over that," Armstrong says. "They don’t want tourists bothered. Their law is simple: they don’t want any trouble."

If confronted, however, the narcotraffickers are not timid. When police raided a favela two years ago in search of a musician’s kidnapped girlfriend, the slum dwellers opened fire and a minibattle ensued. Past governments tried to remove the slums, most of which are on public land, by burning them, gunning down the residents or forcing relocation. The size of communities such as Rocinha make removal unthinkable now. A quarter of Rio’s population lives in the city’s 550 slums.

Armstrong’s second stop, at 2,500-resident Vila Canoas, offers a peek at the conditions in smaller favelas. Vilas Canoas shadows the edge of an upper-middle class neighborhood, Gavea, where BMWs and Mercedes sit outside one of Rio’s most exclusive – and most expensive – private schools.

This favela’s biggest home belongs to its most successful resident, a millionaire baker who turned the production of home pastries into the biggest apple strudel sales operation in Rio. The owner of Dos Sabores, which supplies some of the city’s top hotels and restaurants, employs 12 other favela residents. Few of his customers realize where his company is located.

"He’s done something unusual," Armstrong says, "because it’s hard for people in favelas to become rich. The schools are bad so the success choices for poor kids boil down to just three: Become a soccer player, a samba musician or a drug dealer."

Down a narrow sidewalk deep in the center of the labyrinthian neighborhood, another entrepreneur caters to the tourists that accompany Armstrong. A "welcome" sign in a dozen languages hangs over the beverage kiosk of Luciano Vieira, who dispenses beer, booze and soft drinks with the flair of an experienced bartender. The tour group also visits the Sao Martinho School, bankrolled by an Italian foundation. This favela school teaches teens sewing, silk-screening and computer skills and, like many social projects, depends on outside donations. Armstrong earmarks part of his $25-per-person tour charge for the school.

City and federal programs in Brazil have released funds to improve favela housing and services. The Inter-American Development Bank has also coughed up loans and grants. And with voting mandatory in Brazil, Armstrong says politicians are trying harder to woo favela dwellers.

"In past years when I gave the tour, I could only criticize the government. But now I can say things about government projects that are under way," Armstrong says. "Favelas are, indeed, poor places. But they’re no longer forgotten places."