Rio de Janeiro | The Race to the Start

As it gears up to host two mega sporting events, Rio runs the risk of leaving its poor behind

Taina Pereira’s cousin Cristiano holds up a photograph of her brother Thales, who was 15 when he was shot and killed by a special forces unit of the police in June this year. JIMMY CHALK FOR THE CARAVAN
01 November, 2012

THE BLEACHED WHITE WALLS inside the one-room chapel glow with fluorescent lights. Perched on the highest street of an exasperatingly steep slope, only the sturdiest cars and most intrepid motorcycles even attempt to climb up here. This mountainside in Rio de Janeiro is covered with favelas, or shanty towns, which greet and swallow up downtown day workers in their cars as they zoom into the tunnel below towards the posh neighbourhoods on the other side.

The church is so high that residents here in the favela Fogueteiro can nearly look eye to eye with the city’s famous Christ statue—which sits atop Corcovado, a central peak that towers over the city—and, when the statue is lit at night, make out the features carved into his stone face.

Even in a city ripe with postcard views, the one from Fogueteiro is among Rio’s most mesmerising. But the favela is a place where a climate of dissent and mistrust is driving a thorn deep into Rio de Janeiro’s plan, in the words of the mayor Eduardo Paes, “to transform” itself before it hosts the 2016 Olympics. The community is supposed to be “pacified”—the verb Rio now uses to describe the occupation of favelas by thousands of new police personnel given special training in human rights and conflict mediation.

Officials say they want to adopt a less violent approach towards maintaining law and order in favelas that for years were under the control of armed drug traffickers. But tonight, residents have called a meeting with Sérgio Stoll, captain of the Pacifying Police Unit or Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), to ask why police have turned aggressive on them. In recent months, two young boys in the locality have been shot and killed, while a third was sent to the hospital injured; in all the cases, police said they found weapons and drugs on the boys, and that they shot only after being shot at themselves.

Stoll is in front of the chapel’s pulpit, dressed in a baby blue Tommy Hilfiger polo tucked in stiff ironed jeans. His plainclothes seem to indicate that he is at ease, but his stiff back against his chair and the squad of armed police guarding the church door send another message. At the meeting, Stoll makes an announcement he knows the people will not like—that he is bringing back a team of lieutenants to beef up the UPP force. The news is greeted with voluble protests from attendees. “What I want to do is my work—with or without the support of the community,” Stoll says carefully to the gathering.

The UPP program has been celebrated in countless cheery media reports and graced with visits from the likes of US President Barack Obama. But Stoll doesn’t pretend to be unaware of corruption in the force—some 30 officers under him were let go when the UPP’s first major corruption scandal came to light last year, in which police were found to be receiving thousands in monthly bribes from drug traffickers to allow them “back” into the favela. But Stoll and the residents don’t see eye to eye on with whom the blame lies.  “It’s the bandido who corrupts the policeman,” Stoll says to them.

The move to transform the police is just one aspect of the changes sweeping through Rio ahead of the two massive sporting events the city is hosting—the FIFA World Cup in 2014, and the Olympics in 2016. When in 2009, the city won the rights to host the Olympics, its Copacabana beach burst into a samba-filled cheer. Mayor Paes, first elected in 2008, became the face of the “Olympic City”, the catch phrase meant to show that Rio, seen as stagnant and crime-ridden for decades, was finally coming into its moment. His administration began four new highway projects, five new hospitals, and housing projects for favela residents deemed to be living in areas considered “at-risk” for floods. They say they will bring all the rest of the approximately 1,000 Rio de Janeiro favelas up to proper “urbanised” conditions by 2020.

Given the strong footing on which Paes started, the growing clamour surrounding his main adversary, outspoken human rights activist Marcelo Freixo, became the definitive surprise of the reelection campaigns this year.

Paes’s electoral advantages were almost comical. For one, he had 30 times the finances of Freixo. Further, by Brazilian law, rather than purchasing TV ads, candidates standing for election to government are allocated free primetime ads based on how many seats their party has in the legislature. Paes’s coalition of 20 parties guaranteed him 16 of the 30 free minutes a day, turning ads into mini-documentaries. Freixo’s Socialism and Freedom Party refuses to make coalitions, which they criticise as being driven by exchanges of favours. He was allotted 1 minute and 22 seconds of TV time per day.

Freixo’s message was that the banner of the mega-events has concentrated too much power in the hands of a government more concerned with gratifying private real estate interests than the poor to whom it appeals for votes. “A good city to invest in needs to be a good city to live in,” Freixo said in an interview in July with the newspaper O Globo. Real estate prices have risen by a factor of six over the past decade in prime Rio neighbourhoods, especially in areas with UPPs. A standard lunchtime meal of rice, beans and meat has doubled in price over five years. Rio and São Paulo now routinely top the cost-of-living surveys in the hemisphere.

One Friday night in September during the campaign, more than 10,000 fans filled the plaza next to the iconic arches in the nightlife district of Lapa to hear Freixo speak. Shaky cell videos of his events and endlessly creative campaigning on social networks by his fans—for example, scores added his last name to theirs on Facebook profiles, in keeping with a Brazilian tradition of stringing together a series of family last names—made for a stark contrast to the staid incumbent, whose events were far more contained.

Freixo’s popularity ratings doubled over the campaign, and when the election results were announced in October, he had received nearly 30 percent of the votes. Paes’s 64 percent still meant an easy victory, but Freixo’s threat had loomed large. His network of supporters had consolidated into something of a crowd-sourced, social-media-fueled watchdog to protest the excesses they see leading up to the mega-events.

“We confronted an economic power like there has never been assembled before in Rio de Janeiro,” Freixo told a plaza crowded with supporters as the election results came in. “Now, we start to organise the resistance of Rio de Janeiro.”

Back in Fogueteiro, Taina Pereira passes by the noisy meeting with Stoll without even a glance into the church. The striking 23-year-old has long, perfectly coiffed black ringlets and runs a beauty salon next to the church. Her 15-year-old brother Thales—whom Pereira says she raised while her mother, a maid, slept five nights a week in the TV actress’s house where she worked—was one of the boys killed by police, in June. The death was noted down as a routine “resistance killing”—Rio has averaged two killings by the police per day since 2010, down from a high of 3.5 per day in 2007. The police told their superiors that he had a gun and shot at them first. The investigator tasked with the killing said he had no reason to doubt the story and that he was unable to find any witnesses or family members who contested it.

Pereira says they never came to look. Her brother’s most serious crime, she insists, was having a fresh mouth and talking back to cops. Pereira’s mother prohibited her from speaking with police about the incident, saying she would attract trouble. “[People] say, ‘How are the white folks going to come here to spend their money if they’re seeing that the city’s on fire?’” Pereira says. “So they have to give off a good impression for the people to come, for everything to be pretty, for them to spend in the restaurants, in the hotels, there at the Christ statue.”

In the months after her brother’s killing, Pereira’s family scanned old photos into Facebook and wrote fragmented status updates about their saudades—longing—for him. But despite her loss, Pereira hasn’t written off the pacification and city improvement campaign. She says some good has come to her community. Her salon has French clients who are girlfriends of pro-wrestlers, and she doubts they would feel safe coming to the community if it weren’t for the pacification. Certain shifts of kind police nod and say “good morning” to her. “We’re going to wait and see if it gets better,” Pereira says. “There’s not much we can do. Because who are we versus the government? We’re nobodies. Me, my mom, my grandma, my sister against the state?