Rio Gives Its Favelas a Pre-Olympics Makeover

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Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

A child plays on the roof of his house at Chapéu Mangueira, a shantytown on the hillside of Rio de Janeiro, on Aug. 17, 2011

There have been a lot of unusual sightings recently in Chapéu Mangueira, a small favela, or shantytown, on a hillside overlooking the iconic white sands of Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach. Technicians from a local cell company, once utter strangers to Chapéu Mangueira, are showing up. So are vans delivering home appliances and officials from the government housing agency. Even electricians from the local power utility, Light, have been spotted poking at the heavy cables atop lamp posts.

While those sorts of visits might seem normal to most people, they were until only recently rare to the 3,500 residents of this favela, one of hundreds once controlled by Rio's violent drug gangs. Now, as the government slowly ousts the traffickers and regains the upper hand — part of an organized cleanup ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — companies are starting to understand that there is cash in what was once chaos. Taking products, services and jobs back into the pacified favelas is the latest challenge facing a city hoping to reverse decades of neglect as it prepares to host not just the Olympics but also the soccer World Cup final in 2014. "Now we feel valued," says Chapéu Mangueira resident-association president Valdinei Medina. "Life has clearly got better."

Since October 2009, when it won its bid to hold the Olympics, Rio has unveiled a host of projects that will build modern arenas and museums, as well as metro and bus lines, improved housing and a revitalized port area in the geographically spectacular but socially troubled city. The most unexpected changes, however, are taking place in its favelas, the almost 1,000 hillside slums that for decades were plagued by the stray bullets and bloody turf wars that often spilled out into the city below. Over the past few years, authorities, spurred on by progressive Mayor Eduardo Paes, have retaken control of several high-profile favelas, sending in battalions of special-operations police to remove the traffickers and then installing a community-based presence called Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs by their Portuguese initials.

So far, 17 UPPs have been set up in 68 different communities, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. In the metropolitan area, crimes such as murder and assault are down significantly, as is the number of people killed in confrontations with police. Favelas like Cidade de Deus, or City of God, which is home to the biggest UPP (and the setting of the famous 2002 Brazilian movie by the same name), have seen a massive increase in drug seizures and arrests, while homicides and robberies have been almost halved. "I've been here 43 years, and I've never seen it as good as it is now," says Cidade de Deus resident Eunice Malta. "Before it was not life: I would stand here and a gang would come by shooting at everything that moved. Now my kids come and go as they please."

Major Pricilla Azevedo, commander of the first UPP and now coordinator of strategic projects for the program, says a big difference is that people for once "have confidence in the police." She stresses, however, that better policing is only the first step to making favelas a decent place to live. Authorities must provide the same services, jobs and opportunities as the rest of Rio, and doing that requires more utilities and private enterprise. Rio State Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame agrees. "The reason the UPPs exist are to create a fertile ground where dignity can take root," he told the Rio daily O Globo recently. "The success of the project depends on massive investment, and that isn't happening as fast as it should."

Before a UPP arrived in Chapéu Mangueira in June 2009, there was no real investment and little in the way of public services. The electricity supply, for example, was erratic, and technicians were often prevented by armed traffickers from fixing frequent outages. It was a lose-lose situation, with consumers getting lousy service and Light not getting paid. With residents' help and cooperation, Light arrived in Chapéu Mangueira in May 2010 and began modernizing not just the community's electrical infrastructure but also clients' houses. It rewired 250 of the most unstable homes, swapped more than 1,500 old bulbs for energy-saving fluorescents and bought 400 new refrigerators to replace wasteful old ones. "It was normal to go three or four days without electricity," says Medina. "Now if there's a problem, a team is here in half an hour."

Light also runs education campaigns aimed at changing the habits of electricity pirates who once thought nothing of going to the beach and switching the air-conditioning to high or leaving the fridge door open to keep the house cool. To help residents get used to the new, costlier reality, it is slowly phasing in payments so clients are not jolted by massive bills. "It was always free, so people now have to organize their finances," says Fernanda Mayrink, Light's community-outreach officer. "What I am saying, I'll give you all the help I can, but you have to pay me." Adds Medina: "I used to spend an hour in the shower. Now that I am paying for it, I am in and out."

Economists and sociologists have lauded Light's program and urged more companies to follow suit — and soon. Rio has plans to integrate all its favelas by 2020, but residents can't wait that long for health, education, water, transport and, most crucially, employment opportunities. The success of the UPPs, if not the city's future, depends on whether pacified favelas can be transformed even further into regular neighborhoods with the same security, commerce, services and leisure as the rest of the city. "The process is only sustainable if you are capable of reducing poverty and inequality," says André Urani, executive director of the Institute for Studies on Work and Society in Rio. "It's still fragile. But we're on the right track."