As Olympics Near, Violence Grips Rio's 'Pacified' Favelas

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A man performs yoga in the Babilonia favela overlooking Rio de Janeiro in 2014. The Brazilian government made a big push to impose order on the shantytowns in advance of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics this summer. Babilonia was once considered a model, but violence has been on the rise in the run-up to the games. (Getty Images)
A man performs yoga in the Babilonia favela overlooking Rio de Janeiro in 2014. The Brazilian government made a big push to impose order on the shantytowns in advance of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics this summer. Babilonia was once considered a model, but violence has been on the rise in the run-up to the games. (Getty Images)

In the misty rain, surrounded by Rio de Janeiro's green hills, police officer Eduardo Dias was buried last week. He was shot, purportedly by gang members, as he was leaving his post inside the favela, or shantytown, where he worked as a community cop.

The killing took place a few hundred feet from the Maracana Stadium, where the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics will be held on Aug. 5. As family members wept by the graveside, the pastor raised his hands.

"This rain is like our tears," he said. "Not just ours, but coming also from the heavens for everything that we are going through. I have been asking God, until when, my lord? Until when are we going to have to bury our good policemen? Until when will we have to keep burying our children?"

Brazil has been rattled by a terrible recession, multiple corruption scandals, a political meltdown and the Zika virus. And now Rio is suffering a security crisis.

Murders are up 15 percent from last year. Robbery is up 30 percent. Amid the economic and political turmoil, the state security budget has been cut by a third. The gangs are fighting for territory in advance of the Olympics, according to authorities.

While everyone is feeling the effects, the impact is greatest on Rio's poorest communities, or favelas.

'Disneyland' Favela

To get a sense of how far things have slipped, I went back to Babilonia, a community I visited when I first arrived to Rio three years ago.

Babilonia, like many of Rio's favelas, is located on a hillside with an amazing view of the water and the famed Copacabana beach. Babilonia became known as one of the so-called Disneyland favelas because they were shown to visiting dignitaries and the media as an example of how conditions had improved.

In the new and improved Babilonia, police walked around with their guns holstered. Residents were opening up businesses catering to tourists. They included restaurants, and hostels that were advertised on AirBnB. The drug gangs kept a low profile.

All this was part of a bold policing program called pacification, which placed permanent bases of community police, called UPPs, in neighborhoods that had little or no state presence previously. Residents considered them long overdue and the state considered them necessary as Brazil prepared to host the World Cup in 2014 and this summer's Olympics.

But unlike three years ago, the pacification police are now patrolling with their guns drawn. Police commander Paulo Berbat walks to the crest of the hill, where muddy paths disappear into the jungle.

He says six weeks ago, a rival gang from the neighboring favela tried to push in and take control from the group that controls the drugs and guns in Babilonia. Three drug dealers were killed in a firefight that sent fear through the community.

Too Scared To Speak

Rodrigo da Silva agreed to meet with me on the beach where he works. He owns a hostel in the favela that he advertises on AirBnB, but he also sells food on Copacabana to make ends meet.

He hoped the Summer Olympics would get him out of the hot sun. But so far, there have been few guests at his hostel. "Our business has decreased," he says. "We had much higher expectations in terms of hosting people throughout the Olympics. If the situation had improved, maybe I wouldn't still have to work here on the beach."

Other members of the community had similar stories about a sharp drop in business due to the violence.

Aside from da Silva, favela residents refused to be interviewed, in marked contrast to three years ago. Several told me they had been directly threatened by the gangs, who said we were asking too many questions.

"If you talk too much, it ends badly," da Silva says. "Here's the deal: you do not mess with their business, don't mess with their stuff — and they don't mess with you."

Olympic officials are promising the games will be safe for visitors and athletes. Brazil will be bringing in double the amount of security that the London Games had four years ago.

"What we need to push, and we will do so, is to have more security before the Games, and more security after the Games. We don't want the Games to be an island of success and perfection. We want the Games to transform Rio, and to make Rio a safer city in the years to come," says Mario Andrada, the communications director for Rio 2016.

But even if the Olympics go to plan, the future of the pacification program is in doubt. Da Silva tells me he fears the worst.

"There will be more violence, more violence in all the communities because of the fights between the drug gangs, fights against the police," he says. "In the end the ones who will pay for this will be the residents, as always."

NPR has been collaborating with the the PBS NewsHour, which will also feature reporting by Lulu Garcia-Navarro on its program Tuesday evening.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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