Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

5 min

518 points

First, I’ll try to explain what favelas are. For most foreigners, the term has become synonymous with slums. And if in a colloquial speech this is quite appropriate, then in reality there are some differences. Slums exist in many cities in Latin America, but favela is precisely the Brazilian word.

In Brazil, favelas began to appear immediately after the abolition of slavery on May 13, 1888 and the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil on November 15, 1889. This was facilitated by various economic and internal political processes.

The centuries-old principles of an economy based on the use of slave labor have collapsed. Slaves received freedom but did not receive any social support and money to survive in the new reality. This was the main reason for the emergence of favelas in Brazil. Powerful flows of labor migrants, former slaves moved across the country in search of work and shelter. Finding permanent work (of course, on very unfavorable terms), they occupied the most inconvenient areas of land, for example, on steep hills and mountain slopes, and settled there. The government turned a blind eye to this since there were a lot of lands, and the mountains at that time were not very popular among wealthy Brazilians.

Before the name favela took hold, the slums in Brazilian cities were called “bairros africanos” – African neighborhoods. It is believed that the very word “favela” originated from Morro da Favela, a hill in the old port area in the center of Rio de Janeiro, next to such historic districts as Santu Cristo and Gamboa. In the slave era, barges with slaves arrived there; there were many quarantine zones for slaves in these areas. Slum-dwellers found work in port terminals and in other parts of the city.

As for Rio in particular, at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, the town planner Pereira Passos was active there, who demolished apartment buildings in the center, forcing their inhabitants to settle on the hills. Around the 1920s, the name “favela” spread to other hills with shacks and huts. Typical slum dwellers of the period were ex-slaves, ex-soldiers, and European immigrants who could not afford decent housing in the center. Even then, the favelas were considered the most dangerous place in Rio. In the 1940s, the growth of favelas was fueled by the country’s industrialization.

It is believed that the most recent favelas originated in the 1970s, during the military dictatorship in Brazil when rapid economic growth led to the fact that crowds of villagers flooded into the cities. Those who could not find housing for themselves were forced to settle in the slums. All modern favelas are descended from them. But this dating is rather arbitrary because the favelas continue to grow.

In the name of tolerance in Brazilian society any favela called “community” or simply “the hill”. The state officially calls the favelas the strange phrase “subnormal agglomerate”. It designates a group of at least 51 residential units (houses or barracks) that occupy or until recently occupied someone else’s land.

According to the 2010 census, there were 6329 favelas in Brazil, spread over 323 municipalities. In total, 11.4 million people lived in them – about 6% of the population. The UN has predicted that by 2020 about 55 million people will live in the favelas or a quarter of Brazil’s population. But in fact, the share of Brazilian slum dwellers is gradually declining, albeit very slowly.

In Rio de Janeiro, there were 1,393,314 favelas in 2010 or 22% of the total population of the municipality. But in percentage terms, this is not the highest figure. For example, in Belene, almost 54% of residents are concentrated in favelas.

Brazilian Favelas – what is it now?

Favelas in the classical sense are not just slums, but areas that are not controlled by the state. Since a holy place is never empty, the functions of the state were partially taken over by the bandits. Accordingly, the favelas are divided among the various favelas.

The bandits have engaged in injustice, and they actually replaced the power wing of the state. If the police enter the favelas, it is in special operation mode. That is, you simply cannot call the police here if you are suddenly robbed.

Special operations are usually large-scale sweeps, accompanied by special forces (BOPE, Special Police Operations Battalion) and armored vehicles. Just yesterday, Brazilian television broadcasted one of these sweeps live. Real monsters serve in BOPE, which is not surprising because on the streets of their city they are exposed to no less danger than soldiers in a war zone.

If we talk about Rio de Janeiro, then it is divided into several clusters. There are wealthy neighborhoods, there are regular neighborhoods, and there are favelas. Traditionally, favelas are molded into the mountains and are located on higher ground. At the same time, the favela is not some kind of “working outskirts”, as is usually the case with us when it comes to a dangerous area. Firstly, the main characters do not work in the favelas, and secondly, the favela can be located in the city center.

favela Rio

At the same time, favelas have clear boundaries, they are divided into zones that are controlled by different gangs. Within each of these quarters, relative order reigns, because autocracy operates there.

Periodically, flocks of young bandits descend from the mountains and organize raids on ordinary residents of Rio de Janeiro and tourists. Since downtown is conditionally no one’s territory, they can rob or shoot someone there. But, of course, they won’t shit inside their favela. In this regard, the favelas themselves are relatively safe.

People are afraid of favelas

The second important point is that ordinary people are afraid of favelas. Taxis and even the police don’t go there, ordinary cariocas (residents of Rio) don’t go there. Why is this happening? Firstly, the inhabitants of the favelas are very wary due to the fact that they are engaged in illegal activities (first of all, the bandits themselves, who cover these areas). The police can infiltrate the favela under various pretexts in order to collect some evidence against the next criminal boss and get permission for a special operation. Accordingly, the locals suspect an agent in every stranger, and they are initially hostile to him.

Often, the streets of the favelas are simply blocked by their residents, and if not blocked, then an accidental driver or taxi driver who gets into their labyrinths runs the risk of disliking the local gangs and paying with his car, health, and even life. Although lately, Rio’s favelas have become safer than they were 10 years ago.

What are the people of the favelas doing?

Theft, robbery, sale of drugs and weapons, and other illegal things. But I’m talking about the bandits, and they are a minority here. Most of the inhabitants of the favelas are peaceful and hardworking people working in the service and manufacturing sectors and forced to coexist with the Brazilian reality of drug trafficking. Drug trafficking is woven into the life of peaceful areas, often with the support of residents, as they trust the authorities of drug dealers more than the government. Trafikanchi (traders) participate in the social life of the favelas, help the residents and guard the local “law and order”.

For the Brazilian authorities, the very existence of favelas is a huge problem that they have not been able to solve for many years. One of the country’s important sources of income is tourism, and almost any tourist has heard about how dangerous to travel to brazil and is afraid that they will be robbed. And not in vain: tourists are really robbed here. Therefore, the authorities are trying to somehow restrain the inhabitants of the favelas and overcome this problem.

During carnivals and other international events, the situation usually escalates. Before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, large-scale special operations were carried out in Rio, special forces and guardsmen were on duty in the city, so tourists could feel safe. But then they parted, and keeping the city under curfew is too expensive, so everything returned to normal.

favela rio

Why are there so many young criminals here?

Because according to the law, teenagers are very difficult to prosecute. If a 12-year-old boy goes to take the chain away from someone and shoots someone in the knee (or not in the knee, he, in principle, does not care), then even if the police detain him, they will not be able to do anything with him. If you can somehow be attracted for murder, then if he commits theft, he will simply be released. Therefore, he is well aware of his impunity and goes on to limitlessness.

The last time I was in Rio, I went to such a favela (it was Santa Marta). It’s relatively safe there, you can take pictures there, even Michael Jackson shot a video there, and in general, everything is quite fun.

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518 points