A Cable Car Ride Gives Insight Into Rio's 'Pacified' Favelas

Brazil's favelas, or slums, are notoriously violent places, and in recent years, the Brazilian government has attempted to establish order through police-run "pacification" programs. A cable car ride above several favelas gives a clearer view of what's happened in the communities in recent years.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block, reporting this week from Brazil. I'm in Rio de Janeiro, that vibrant, pulsing city of about 6 million people, famous for its beaches, its samba. I'm joined here by our South America correspondent, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

And Lulu, when I say "here," right now I mean here in a bright-red cable car. We are dangling high up above Rio de Janeiro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: We certainly are.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a cable car that's taking us to one of the favelas, the shantytowns of Rio. Actually, we're going to a complex of favelas called Complexo do Alemao. There are about 85,000 people who live here.

BLOCK: And Lulu, let's explain this cable car idea. The favelas here in Rio are built onto the sides of hillsides. Looking all around, we see these houses - these shanties - stacked one on top of the other. A lot of the favelas here - right? - are known for really horrific levels of violent crime; they're ruled by drug traffickers and gangs. So explain what the idea is now, with this new cable car system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This was built a few years ago after a process called pacification happened. Basically, the state government decided, before the mega events that Rio is hosting - the World Cup, the Olympics - that they needed to tackle what was happening inside the favelas, like this one just here. So they decided that in certain favelas, they would send in pacification police units, who would reside full time in the area.

Before, they used to send in a sort of - shock troops to battle the gangs, and then they'd pull out. In many of these places, this is the first sign of government presence they've ever had. And along with that, they promised infrastructure projects like this one, this cable car.

BLOCK: And it's a wacky thing to see, Lulu, because these cable cars wouldn't be out of place on a mountain in Vail or Aspen, Colo. But looking down, we're seeing the poorest parts of Rio, right? We're seeing slums.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of the people that live here - it's a mixed community. It's predominately black, certainly among the poorer members of society. But it also has people from the lower middle classes. This is a working poor neighborhood, and so some statistics say that 90 percent of young people here have Internet, for example. This is a plugged-in community. There are human rights organizations. There are architectural firms. There are all sorts of things happening in a community of this size.

But it is extremely important that they now have access to something as fundamental as transportation. And this is what this cable car's all about.

BLOCK: Part of the problem - as we look around at these hillsides, Lulu - is, it would be really hard for people who live up here in these favelas, on these hills, to get around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, just look out the window right now. What we're seeing is crowded houses crawling up these hillsides. Normally, the way people get around in these areas is by motorcycle because the roads are so narrow. Most people have to walk to get there. So it really is extremely difficult to get around. But beyond transportation, these were areas that were completely marginalized from the main heartbeat of the city. They weren't connected to electricity. They did not have garbage collection, water. And so part of the pacification process is trying to bring these people into the community in real ways, by providing services.

Oh - one of the interesting things - look. We're seeing, right now, the pacification police.

BLOCK: Oh, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You see them patrolling on foot? And that's one of the things that they really, really do. They get out, onto the streets. They make their presence felt. They know the people here and that was the idea behind bringing these people into mainstream Rio.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Portuguese spoken)

BLOCK: OK, so they're wishing us a good trip on this cable car. There are six stations on this. We've been bouncing through each of them as they connect these hillside shantytowns. We're going to get out, Lulu, and look around at this favela.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are.

BLOCK: OK, Lulu. We just saw those police officers on the streets of the favela, from the cable car. Now, we're out on the street. We're actually standing right in front of the Pacification Police Station. Has that program worked in the favelas?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I mean, the very fact that we're standing here now - what was one of the most dangerous favelas in Rio - I think speaks to the fact that yes, it has had some success. But let me put it into context for you. An NGO recently claimed that in the past decade, 10,000 people have been killed or "disappeared" by the police in Rio. And that is exactly what favela residents complain about with the pacification police. They say you've actually put people in our neighborhood that are killers; i.e. the police.

You have the case of Amarildo de Souza, and that's gotten a lot of attention here. He was 47, a longtime resident of a different favela, a bricklayer, a father, not known for any connection to the drug trafficking. He was picked up by police several months ago and hasn't been seen since. And so it speaks to the fact that it really has been a mixed bag.

BLOCK: And a lot of people talk about that case of Amarildo. He's become a name. He's become a name everybody here knows.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's become a rallying cry, in many ways. And also, it's really put the spotlight into many of the complexities that come with trying to bring many of these favelas into the realm of public security.

BLOCK: OK, we've been focusing on the violent side of the favelas. But Lulu, these are also a really rich source of popular culture in Brazil, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, the favelas are alive in popular culture. They live in the imagination of Brazilians. We recently had our first telenovela - or soap opera - set right here in Alemao. But beyond this, this is a place where music and dance infuses the Brazilian culture. Take Passinho, which is a sort of cross between break-dancing and capoeira. It's really physical, and it's flourished after the pacification units have come in.

You used to have sort of dancing here - baile funke - that was much more sexualized. And Passinho, the kids dance it. It's just much more athletic. And it's really taken off not only from here, but around the country.

BLOCK: Well, Lulu, thanks for our guided tour of the favelas today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

And the end of our favela visit brings us now to our word of the day. We've been highlighting words that are in the popular culture of Brazil, words that say something about the Brazilian way of life. And today, we're going to learn some words that are really common in the favela culture. We're going to learn them from a vendor who's selling little painted tiles here. His name is Varner Umbalino.

Bom dia.

VARNER UMBALINO: Bom dia.

BLOCK: We are asking you for a word that symbolizes or says something about culture and life in the favelas. What's a word that you would think of?

UMBALINO: Um sete um - 171 - um sete um.

BLOCK: One-seven-one, and what does 171 mean?

UMBALINO: (Through translator) A person who likes to lie.

BLOCK: Why is a person who lies called a 171?

UMBALINO: (Through translator) For example, he could say, I travel to the United States, I travel to Europe. But he's never left Brazil. He's a 171. He lies.

BLOCK: But why this number? Why is it a 171?

UMBALINO: (Portuguese spoken)

BLOCK: So you're saying it's part of the criminal code; that fraud in the criminal code would be 171. Somebody who's crazy would be a 13, also from the criminal code. Somebody who's crazy - a 13. You just call him - he's a 13.

UMBALINO: Yeah - crazy.

BLOCK: Are there any other numbers that come up in conversation, that come from the criminal code?

UMBALINO: (Portuguese spoken)

BLOCK: So you're saying that the number 157 would stand for somebody who robs and kills, in the criminal code. You'd say, he's a 157.

UMBALINO: Yes.

BLOCK: Well, Senhor Varner, thanks so much for helping us out with our words of the day today.

UMBALINO: Obrigado.

SIEGEL: That's our co-host Melissa Block, who is reporting this week from Brazil.

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