Flavour of the Favelas

Rio de Janeiro Travel Blog

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Now against all good travel advice I decided to venture into the notorious favelas of Rio, that are run and maintained by drug lords.... 2 weeks prior to my arrival 20 odd gang members and a policeman were killed in a favela shoot out when one gang tried to take over another gangs turf! With this story and many others edged in the back of my head and after watching ´City of God´ i wasnt entirely sure whether it was a smart thing to do..? Favela in portuguese literally means slum district by the way!

The hype that i heard along the grape vine is amazing, that tourists go missing, there are shootouts every week, coke addicts everywhere and a society full of criminals. Now this would have been the impression i maintained had i not gone into the favela. This is far from the truth it is nearly comical but it is defineately an unique society where corruption and drugs are rife, drug gangs fight for turf space and the police are just as bad as the criminals but it is a well organised and proud place. Honestly, I never felt safer in Rio than when i was within this community. Because the favelas are run by drug lords they have their own rules and regulations for the favelas and if you break these you answer to the drug gang. The drug lords do not tolerate any violence or stealing within the favela and photography of any gang members is a BIG no no! So if you follow these three simple rules and respect the favela locals you will have a great time.

Now i didnt just walk in off the street into the favela, which you can do quite easily with no problems, i did get a small tour (Dont be a Gringo, Be a Local) with a local guide! We went to the oldest and largest favela in Rio which houses over 200,000 people, it is mindblowing to see so many roofs in such a confined area. Roughly 20% of brazils population live in favelas which is astronomical considering there are over 300 million people in the country!!! In Rio alone there are over 300 favelas of differing sizes all of which are run by 4 different gangs. The favela i visited was run by the biggest gang the AGA which stands for ´Amigoes are Amigoes´. This gang controls several favelas and this particular favela generates approx $US3 million a month in drug traffickking, so it is a very properous piece of turf to have and is guarded and fought for vigoriously! On many of the back alleys and entrances to the favela gang units were ready for action with a lookout (often small kid with fireworks to raise the alarm), a walkie talkie guy (on a two way radio to talk to the gang soldiers) to let the gang know of any trouble and then soldiers (armed with all types of machine guns and you guessed it hand grenades). A tingle went up my spine when i saw my first gang soldier, a 16-18 year all kid waiting with a big gun and hand grenades strapped to his belt, as we passed he smiled and say oi amigo tu tu bang! I was stunned by his pleasentries!

I was surprise to learn that only 1-2% of people (still alot) in the favela i visited were gang members (about 2000 members). Even more surprising is that the gang leaders are so young. Because the favela is so big it is controlled by two druglords (very rare) one who is aged 24 and the other 27. Prior to the favela having two druglords it had one famous druglord (his reputation was on par with Ronaldinho the soccer star) who took control when he was 17 and was killed by police last year in a dramatic shoot out aged 26. For gang members in the favela living to 30 is a long life! The rest of the people living in the favela are working class citizens avoiding paying land taxes (for water and electricity), or other pity criminals that venture out of the favela to do their crimes. The police have no real durisdiction in the favelas and avoid them as much as possible, and if they do go in then shooting is guaranteed!

Our tour guide Daniel walked us around the favela for 3 hours and you could tell that he didnt know everyone and that he too was a bit like a foreigner. This made the experience more raw and he was constantly saying that he never knows what is happening around the next bend so if there are gang members put your cameras down. This kept us on our toes. We visited shops in the favela, went to an artists gallery, had heaps of photos with the children in the favela who are more than happy to pose for photos, ´oi gringo gringo, here photo´!! However, if you dont like motorbikes then maybe dont do this tour. When we first arrived we had to get individual motorbike rides to the top of the favela (favelas are often built of the side of hills and mountains). My drivier was loco, flying up the hill overtaking on blind corners nearly having head-ons, we actually ran into the side of a bus (cracked his side mirror), he laughed and said he wasnt crazy. I replied ´no your just loco, go faster´... so he did! This was probably the only time i was worried for my safety whilst in the favela, my only regret is that i did not film it, crazy! 

Now i completely understand people being disgusted by me or others venturing into an area (and paying for it) to get an eye witness account of the poverty and misery within a poor community (i had my reservations) but the truth be told 8 out of every 10 houses in the favelas have colour tv, computers etc! The tour company sponsors an orphange in the favela as the biggest problem is not drugs but maintaining the nourishment and health of so many children. For every child born outside the favela, four are born within the favelas, it is amazing there are children everywhere! So at the end of each month the orphange puts in an order and the tour company buys all the necessities as well as supplying materials for building new places in the favelas. Dont get me wrong we live better lives than most within the favelas but the grim, horrible picture that the papers print is just not true. People are happy there and though the drug trade brings in the money not everyone is a drug user or gang member, they are a small but violent minority! I thoroghly enjoyed my time in the favela and would recommend it too anyone but beware some companies dont give anything back to the community avoid these! Peace Out 

Zezinho says:
rocinha...my home!
Posted on: Nov 26, 2009
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