Drug gangs and gold medals – the Olympics in a Rio favela

Ian O’Riordan visits the Rocinha favela to see what impact, if any, the Olympics is having


Our only instruction was to meet Alberto outside the Marina Palace Hotel in Ipanema and from there he’d take us up into the favelas. There is no official way of going from the richest areas of Rio de Janeiro into the poorest, only the risky way, and after seven days stuck inside the Olympic bubble, we were willing to take our chances.

It’s not recommended in the official tourist guides either, although word on the street says it’s incredibly different and perfectly safe: only it is better not to go it alone - or at least not after dark. And like most things these days it’s a mere internet search away.

So it starts with Google and then a WhatsApp message, and at least some assurance that James Crombie, out here in Rio with photography agency Inpho, is willing to share the ticket and help document the ride.

How much do they care for the Olympics up there? Are they having any impact at all? Will they even be watching them? Only one way to find out.

It’s late afternoon and the city is cloudy and hot. Alberto shows up at the exact place and exact time - out of the proverbial nowhere - and directs us across the street, where a beat-up minibus pulls in, parking lights flashing, and we jump into the back, packed up tightly against quiet young women and shrunken old men.

The traffic is heavy but never stuck, and after half an hour the road starts ramping up to the right, then left, then right again (during which we both slip Alberto 120 Real, about €35): this is the Rocinha district, on the southern side of Rio, and suddenly and without warning the road narrows, and the houses move in closer, then closer again.

Most people have a first impression of the favelas in their head and this is truly it, crowded houses piled randomly and haphazardly on top of each other, six or seven high, held up or else tangled up in dense lengths of electrical wiring. Whoever was in charge of planning permission clearly lost their job a long time ago, if indeed there ever was such a job.

Alberto wasn’t born in the Rocinha favela, although he was raised here, moving in with his family, aged four, in 1966: and he’s lived here ever since. We’re little more than 1km north of the affluent beach area of São Conrado, in an area a mere 2km in diameter, only built on an extremely steep mountain side of the Tijuca National Park, with partial views out over the Atlantic Ocean. Every sight and smell is already distinctly different, although it’s not exactly a different planet, not yet anyway.

“Welcome to my home,” says Alberto, by way of introduction, as we step off the bus. “We have three hospitals, four schools, and around 100,000 people. And no crime. I’m not being hypocritical, but you have a much greater chance of being robbed back in Ipanema, or down along the Copacabana.”

No crime?

“No, but there are laws,” says Alberto. “Like rape somebody, especially somebody young, then say goodbye. Prepare to meet your God.”

He’s funny and jaunty and speaks excellent English, and straightaway it seems everyone knows his name. This may well be a sort of sanitised tour of the favela, and Rocinha is considered one of the better developed, although nothing appears to be off limits either, nor out of bounds. And it seems many of the other impressions people have in their heads aren’t very true at all. A favela, for starters, is a type a tree, not a slum, even if that’s the word it’s now associated with.

And despite the poverty and cramped living conditions and cripplingly high unemployment it’s at no point and in no way whatsoever a threatening place - and having the presence of Alberto can’t entirely account for that. It’s crowded but not disturbingly so, and one of the few queues down along the streets is for the favela lottery, which also serves as a sort of money lending/laundering service.

“And there are no guns here,” he says, “except in the hands of the drug traffickers. Because they are the only ones who can afford guns. And they control the place. The police presence moved in here, about five years ago, ahead of the World Cup, and the Olympics, but they do nothing. Zilch.”

Indeed the favelas are effectively small cities within the city: the only national obligation of the inhabitants is they’re registered to vote, and for the young males, registered for military service. They don’t pay any taxes, although most pay nominal rates to the drug traffickers (none of whom we see, by the way), nor do they pay for electricity, TV, or telephone lines. That, according to Alberto, is all hooked up independently, although again with occasional tips to the men in charge.

Our favela tour, for natural reasons, starts at the top and works its way down. It’s a near constant and extreme downhill gradient, which is a good thing, because that also serves a crucial sanitary role. For some residents, there is no flushing the toilet, but rather tying up the contents of a plastic bag and tossing it over their shoulder. There is an open and not pleasant sewerage system, which surprisingly doesn’t smell too bad, the sight of several rats aside.

Only we haven’t come up here on a health inspection: our mission is to see what impact, if any, these Rio Olympics are having on the 100,000 residents of Rocinha, and from the first turn downwards, it’s clear they are at least watching.

Inside the very first cafe bar, painted entirely in lime green, a man is sitting alone at a yellow table, the men’s judo competition playing out on a flat screen TV hanging on the wall; it’s the same inside practically every open shop front and doorway and window we pass, and in some cases on street corners too, one man setting up an old box TV set on a makeshift table, friends and neighbours all gathered around watching the men’s gymnastics.

“Well it’s the only thing actually on TV,” says Alberto. “These are all the state channels, and they’ve all been taken over the Olympics. But also for first time there is some structure, incentive, to participate in these sports. The Olympics have brought that. In my 44 years in the favelas I never once played any sport, was never once taken to any sporting event.”

Then, by cosmic coincidence, there’s the perfect example of what Alberto means: he takes us up one flight of stairs into a positively old world gym, where several burly young men are pumping away on the barbells and bench press, again with the TV turned on, volume turned up, above a large wall mirror.

At that exact moment, Rafaela Silva wins Brazil’s first gold medal of these Olympics, convincingly outscoring her Mongolian opponent, in the women’s judo. With that the entire gym comes to standstill, then breaks out into a spontaneous round of applause.

“She’s from a Rio favela,” says Alberto, “the Cidade de Deus, the City of God. For her these Olympics have definitely been a big incentive.”

Indeed at age 24, these Rio Olympics are already sure to prove a life-changing event for Silva, although whether it will help lift her out of the poverty of the Cidade de Deus is another question. Will she even want that?

Because it seems for most residents, not just Rocinha, the favelas aren’t just crowded houses piled randomly and haphazardly on top of each other but a safe and familiar home. And while the Olympics may well be providing some colourful entertainment they were never going to leave any profound or lasting impression, because life will simply go on here, regardless of what happens down in affluent Ipanema and Copacabana, a short minibus tour away.

“People, you see, are happy here,” says Alberto, which may or may not be what we had just paid to hear, as he takes us down a final narrow passage of half-broken steps to one of his favourite local bars, named Not At Work.

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