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Day 55: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilEvidence of this is to be found only a short distance from Maré, in the huge, sprawling Complexo do Alemão. Almost a year ago, a battle was fought here between police and two drug gangs, Comando Vermelho (Red Command) and Amigos dos Amigos (the Friends of Friends). It was the most high-profile gang-busting operation and for the State Governor, Sérgio Cabral, it could not afford to fail. A similar operation in 2007, when nineteen people were killed, became known as the Complexo do Alemão Massacre, and the drug gangs remained in control. Three years later it was better planned and, though there were thirty-seven deaths in the action, this scattering of half a dozen favelas and 300,000 people were taken into police control. This time follow-up funds were poured in and outward and visible change has come amazingly quickly.

At Bonsucesso Station the railway into Rio connects with a brand-new cable car system, the Teleférico, which connects all the corners of the Complexo do Alemão. We're among the first people to travel on it, and several proud but wary officials escort us around, as does a highly articulate young journalist and blogger called Raul. Raul is twenty-two, clean-cut, with film star good looks. An advert for redemption. Raul grew up involved in petty crime. He didn't have a weapon, he claims, but 'he held one for others', as he puts it. As the shiny blue and white gondola swings us out over the rooftops he admits that it's going to take time for the people of Complexo do Alemão to get used to it. The young are already taking advantage, but, despite the fact that it's reduced the journey time to schools, shops and clinics from one and a half hours to fifteen minutes, the older people are still very wary of the buses in the sky. Raul's mother won't go near it. A few years ago something like the Teleférico would have been unthinkable. The only way you would have got this extraordinary view out over the favela would have been from a police helicopter.

When we get out at one of the spotless, freshly painted stations, we see military police in evidence, but they keep a discreet presence, standing almost shyly to one side wearing their turquoise baseball caps marked 'Forca da Pacificacão'. At the very heart of the Complexo, where narrow gullies crammed with precarious shanty houses converge, a very cool modern development is being completed. It's to be called Knowledge Square, and it consists of Cinema Carioca, admission four reais, as opposed to twenty-five in the centre of Rio, a Digital Inclusion Centre for the locals to learn about the internet, new shops, a caged football pitch and a big mural of Albert Einstein. I see here something that seems so obvious, but which we haven't seen in any of the favelas we've visited so far, and that is well-designed social housing. 'Morar Carioca' the billboard announces. Carioca Living. The bright, attractive housing, the Teleférico and Knowledge Square are gleaming symbols of hope. The fact that armed gangs were in running battles with the police and the army here only a year ago shows how fast the renewal programme can move when it wants to. PAC, the Growth Acceleration Programme, which is organizing this initiative, is dear to the heart of President Dilma Rousseff and already a second-stage PAC 2 is being planned involving injections of billions of dollars into the infrastructure of Brazil's cities. How much it will have changed them by the time visitors pour in to the World Cup and the Olympics remains to be seen. The reality is that the drug dealers have not gone away for good. So long as there is a market for their product, so long as rich and aspiring Cariocans, and others further afield, demand their fixes, there will be drug dealers in Complexo do Alemão for some time yet. And the army knows this too. There are no plans to withdraw until well into next year.

What is beyond doubt is how the improved conditions can release the potential of those who have been neglected for so long. Like Bira in Maré, Raul is not leaving the community in which he learnt a life of crime, he's using his experience and his inside knowledge to change others the way he's changed. He runs a community blog, he's learnt excellent English and when I ask for some detail about the years of violence in his favela, he nods, smiles and brings out his iPad to look it up.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 55: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 233

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