ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. World Cup travelers are flocking to Rio de Janeiro for the tournament's final. Many are staying in low-income neighborhoods known in Brazil as favelas. Among the most popular is Vidigal. It rises up a steep hillside over some of Rio's most scenic beaches, offering incredible views. A government program to drive crime from the historically violent slum has attracted entrepreneurs, investors and is also inspiring community involvement. Catherine Osborne reports.
CATHERINE OSBORNE, BYLINE: It's a Tuesday night at the entrance to Vidigal and a forum of over 100 people has gathered to debate the recent changes in their community. Maria Souza, who is retired, takes the microphone.
: (Through translator) The electricity bill for my neighbor, Vera, is 762 reais and 80 cents. my navel vera is 762 radius and 80 cents. Here it is - electricity in Vidigal.
OSBORNE: Paying for utilities is new to many favelas, but even so the electricity bill is 10 times what it should be. Raymundo Santa Rosa, from the power company, is among the state and government agencies at the forum to answer questions. He says he'll look into the charge.
SANTA ROSA: (Through translator) I will go personally to your house. I will go with a team to see what is happened. Everyone who is having a problem with this will get the same procedure.
OSBORNE: This favela or informal settlement used to be controlled by a drug gang. The government was absent and speaking up could get you killed. In advance of the World Cup and the Olympics, a program called pacification was put in place where police units were stationed in areas like this one. While its impact has been hotly debated, there've been cases of police brutality, for example. Here in Vidigal it did bring a step toward democracy. The community held its first ever election for a governing body two years ago and chose political outsiders who had long been grassroots leaders. One of these is Andre Kosi, who drives a delivery truck. Kosi says having a voice has been a game changer.
ANDRE KOSI: (Through translator) We didn't know anything about public management and now we're learning how the government machine works. I see there are a lot of flaws. Essentially, the government is set up to service its own ends so things like healthcare continue to be precarious because the government was not even paying attention. Now, they are finally serving us a bit better because we are creating a voice.
OSBORNE: He says among recent successes, the neighborhood association convinced the government to increase their public bus service but that there's still a long way to go. Ignacio Cano, a State University of Rio sociologist and advisor to the pacification program, says five years in - it is very far from where it should be.
IGNACIO CANO: The communities and police are still very far apart from each other. There is a lot of mistrust on both sides. So we have really advanced very little.
OSBORNE: Part of the problem, Cano says, is that pacification was originally announced like a fix-all. It came with a social services arm that was supposed to help address needs like health care and education. When that arm was cut back, it became easy to simply blame the police instead of going to the secretary of health, for example.
CANO: We have to expect the community to take over this role and the police to provide the security that allows the community to represent itself and to defend their interests.
OSBORNE: That security has been slipping in Rio despite the fact that over 9,000 police in the state have been newly trained since 2008 to be part of pacification units. Deadly conflicts with police have risen sharply in the last year. Cano says that's because the police have continued their old ways of running dramatic shoot-'em-up operations to hunt for drug traffickers instead of listening to the communities on priorities for security - things like keeping homes safe from break-ins.
CANO: Traditionally, we had this war on drugs - war on crime. That's what the police are used to doing. And that's what they do.
OSBORNE: Cano says the communication that's going on in Vidigal with police and government officials is the reason why Vidigal has become safer in recent years and why it's an example for the rest of the city.
OSBORNE: As the debate comes to an end, police chief Carlos Veiga says pacification and wider political reform in Brazil will only work if people participate in the kind of dialogue that's going on here.
OSBORNE: It's always a search for citizenship in Brazil, Veiga says, and Vidigal is in the front. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborne in Rio de Janeiro.
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