Brazil: The Law of the Favelas

Rio de Janeiro's favelas are the dregs of a city, teeming slums where the crime rate makes Harlem tame by comparison. The pastel-painted shantytowns with their deceptive names—"Pleasure Hill," "Peacock," "Heaven"—breed hoods with monikers like "Tidal Wave," "Uncle Horrible" and "Dried Meat."

The cops are helpless, always patrol in groups and only during daylight. Except one. For the past 25 years, favela law, or what there was of it, largely rested on City Detective Perpétuo de Freitas da Silva.

To win authority in the slums, Perpétuo had to be good, clever—and lucky. He...

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