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Rio liberates favelas one by one

A braces-wearing police officer well supplied with candy is helping try to take back Rio's slums.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The police have taken aim at this tropical city’s most intractable problem: hundreds of highly visible slums controlled not by government authorities but by violent drug gangs.

The goal is to liberate the favelas one by one from their heavily-armed de facto rulers using fierce special operations battalions to sweep out the gangs and weapons and then turn over permanent control to pacification units staffed by rookie officers. For many of the favelas targeted, it would be the first consistent police presence since drug gangs took over in the 1980s.

That includes the adjacent Cantagalo and Pavao-Pavaozinho favelas, labyrinthine communities of alleys and narrow streets on the steeply inclined hills above the upscale beachfront neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema. They received the city’s fifth Police Pacification Unit (UPP) in December, in the form of 203 officers led by a personable, braces-wearing young captain named Leonardo Nogueira.

“They lived for many years under the domination of drug traffickers. Today, it’s another reality,” said Nogueira. The UPPs utilize first-year officers to avoid the corruption endemic in the more experienced echelons of the force. Nogueira, who has nine years of experience, said that wasn’t the only advantage. “When you use younger officers,” he said, “the result is always better. They are fresher. They are more rested. They are more disposed to work.”

GlobalPost toured the communities with the captain, and then returned the next day, unaccompanied. During both visits, residents agreed with his assessment, though many noted that the new reality is not perfect.

Among the police boosters is Raimunda Marques de Melo, a middle-aged woman who lives in the first house up the hill from a favela entrance on Saint Roman Street in Copacabana. That area was long a “boca de fumo,” a point-of-sale for drug users, but Marques de Melo noted it was not just drugs and guns that bothered her — prostitutes would conduct business under a towering tree that bursts from the patch of hill between her home and Saint Roman. “For me, it’s marvelous,” she said, as she sat barefoot in a zebra-striped tank-top shirt on the steps leading up into the favela. “It’s peace and harmony. We’ve suffered a lot here.”

But the change most commonly noted by residents is the peace that comes at night. “We’re actually sleeping. Before there was noise: fireworks, gunshots, motorcycles coming through, all night long,” said 70-year-old Paulo Cardoso, a four-decade resident of Cantagalo who shares a small house with his long-time companion and five others.

Many younger residents in their teens and early 20s have mixed feelings — or resent the tight police control over parties and late-night carousing, such a staple of life under the drug gangs. Cantagalo was one of the favelas that became a destination for upper class youth attending all-night “bailes funk,” dances that spawned the now mainstream musical genre “funk carioca” — or Rio-style funk.