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The Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro is remaking itself for the 2016 Olympics, but not just the tourist hot spots. It's also the hillside slums, called favelas, that have been long wracked by want and despair. The city's new focus has changed the look and feel of Rio's poorest neighborhoods. NPR's Juan Forero begins his report in one of them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)


JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Police radios crackle in Providencia, a warren of cinderblock homes and narrow walkways where drugs and violence were common. But these days, it's just routine chatter - all's safe on a bright, sunny day. And a Rio advertising company is leading a tour for its employees and representatives of other companies.


FORERO: Among those who've come to a favela is Raoni Lotar. He's 30 and is there for the first time.

RAONI LOTAR: In the past, we hear how unsafe was this place and now we are walking around. Now we feel that the favelas is being really integrated to our city.

FORERO: Just two years ago, Rio's favelas - hundreds of irregular communities built chock-a-block on the city's steep hills - were in the grip of drug traffickers. Then the police employed a new strategy, says Captain Glauco Schorcht, commander here in Providencia.

CAPTAIN GLAUCO SCHORCHT: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: We used to come in, do an operation, then leave, says Schorcht.

Now, the captain says the police for the first time set up stations in the favelas. With better security, came a range of city services for the first time.


FORERO: And workers are repairing roads and improving the water delivery system. But it's not just the government showing interest. Milene Costa is taking welding classes from an oil company that's come in to train favela residents.

MILENE COSTA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: There were few opportunities for those who lived here, Costa says. We were seen as people who couldn't be counted on.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to incorporating the favelas into the rest of Rio are the people of Rio themselves, the Cariocas. Americans and Europeans, in contrast, are often drawn to the favelas by the music and art life.


FORERO: Jason Scott, a 26-year-old from Colorado, is doing his graduate research in a favela called Vidigal. Many of his Brazilian friends react with concern when they hear where he is.

JASON SCOTT: The first thing they say is, watch out, you know, be careful there. People have lived in Rio all their life looking at Vidigal and have never set foot in it.

FORERO: But even that may be changing.


FORERO: On a recent day, as music boomed from speakers, Rejane Reis gave a tour of the biggest favela of them all, Rocinha.


FORERO: Motorcycles weave along its streets of food stalls and vendors selling pirated movies take up all available free space. But the tourists this day were all Brazilians - and they were clearly fascinated, and perhaps a little wary.

Reis, though, said Rocinha shouldn't be feared, that it could also be admired.

REJANE REIS: Here, they live as a big family. The way of life is completely different from our life outside. In our life, sometimes we don't know our neighbor.


FORERO: And with that, Reis rounded a corner, and continued with her tour.

Juan Forero, NPR News


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