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In The Hills Of Rio, Shantytowns Get A Makeover

Santa Marta is one of the many slums that dot the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio, host of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, is now trying to remake these slums, or favelas, long wracked by poverty and violence. (AFP/Getty Images)

On a recent day in Rio de Janeiro, police radios crackle in Providencia, a warren of cinder-block homes and narrow walkways where drugs and violence were once common.

But these days, it's just routine chatter. All is safe in this favela, one of the hundreds of slums built chockablock on the city's steep hills. A Rio advertising company is leading a tour for its employees and representatives of other companies.

Among those who have come is Raoni Lotar, a 30-year-old Carioca — resident of Rio.

"In the past, we hear how unsafe this place was, and now we're walking around," says Lotar who is visiting for the first time. "Now, we feel that the favelas [are] really being integrated into our city."

Rio de Janeiro is hosting soccer's World Cup in 2014, as well as the 2016 Olympics. The Brazilian city is remaking itself — not just the tourist hot spots, but also the favelas, long wracked by violence and despair.

The city's new focus has companies looking for opportunities in the favelas, and middle-class Brazilians like Lotar wandering in for the very first time.

Battling The Drug Traffickers

Just two years ago, Rio's favelas were in the grip of drug traffickers. Gang members shot down a police helicopter. Homicides reached nearly 7,000 a year in greater Rio.

Then the police employed a new strategy, says Capt. Glauco Schorcht, commander in Providencia.

"We used to come in, do an operation, then leave," he says.

Now, the captain says, the police for the first time set up stations in the favelas.

Community-policing units build ties to the community. With better security came a range of city services for the first time. The city is planning a cable car to connect to Providencia, located high on a hill next to the city center, repairing roads and improving the water-delivery system.

It's not just the government showing interest: Milene Costa takes welding classes from an oil company that trains favela residents.

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

Foreigners And Brazilians Visiting

Perhaps the greatest barrier to incorporating the favelas into the rest of Rio are the Cariocas themselves. In contrast, the music and art of the favelas attract Americans and Europeans.

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

"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. They've driven past it in their cars," Scott says. "It's still very much stigmatized."

But even that may be changing.

On a recent day, as music booms from speakers, Rejane Reis gives a tour of the biggest favela of them all, Rocinha. Motorcycles weave along its streets. Food stalls and vendors selling pirated movies take up all available free space.

The tourists this day are all Brazilians, and they are clearly fascinated, and perhaps a little wary.

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

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

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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)

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RADIO CALL)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION AND LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

Juan Forero, NPR News

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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