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Day 55: Rio de Janeiro

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Luke points out warring sections of the favela. His aim is to persuade them to fight with fists in the gym, not with guns on the streets.
Michael Palin - Brazil'There are between 45,000 and 50,000 homicides in Brazil every year. Ninety percent of which are gun-related. There are a lot of guns on the street.'

He thinks the pacification policy has one big advantage going for it. Money. It's not just the Mayor and the police who want to improve things, it's the big companies as well. Favelas run by traffickers are not good for business. He's heard that Eike Batista, the fabulously wealthy mines-to-transport entrepreneur, is backing it. And there are rumours that Maré is already being prepared for occupation. The usual drop of leaflets and written warnings hasn't yet materialized, but BOPE have apparently begun operating here. Luke recalls that they were in the middle of shooting a video for British Airways when a fully armed BOPE assault group appeared round the corner. 'Very surreal moment,' he adds.

Right on cue, there is the sound of what could be distant crackling gunfire. Luke cocks his head. 'Firecrackers,' he concludes. 'That's how the gangs warn that there are police on the move.'

We go back downstairs. Outside, in the compound, Bira, a large middle-aged man wearing a gold Brazil football shirt, sits in a wheelchair surrounded by a group of NGOs from all over the world who've come here to see if there are lessons for their own countries' problems. Two of them are from the Congo. One is their national boxing champion despite only having one eye. He lost the other whilst a soldier in the children's army.

Bira too has a story. He was once a bank robber till he got shot in the back. Now, despite being wheelchair-bound, he is a figure everyone respects and a vital liaison between Luke and the local community. Someone asks Bira how he goes about trying to persuade others to give up a life of crime. He shrugs. 'What's good for me is good for them. That's all I can say. I'm not superman. I can't change things myself.'

He has an ambiguous attitude to pacification. He can see the reason for it but he still feels that he and others in Maré are being treated as special cases, just because they live in favelas. 'I want to be treated because I'm a citizen, not differently because I come from a favela.'

Which makes me aware of one of the frustrating truths about favelas. That the predominantly peaceful, hard-working majority of favelados are damned for the actions of a small but ruthless minority. With Bira wheeling himself along ahead of us, we make a cautious sally out of the well-fenced compound and into the streets of Maré. There's a shoe black just outside, and a fruit seller, and as we go up the street, there is nothing more aggressive than some shouted greetings from acquaintances of Bira. Only when we hear the firecrackers again does Luke suggest we should be getting back. He sighs.

'Most of the bad stuff happens at night,' he says. But any weariness in his voice is more than made up for by his determination to stay the course. Things can get better.
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Telephone and electricity are taken off the public supply on leads. The clusters of leads are known as a gato, a cat. The local cat-man can connect you up.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 55: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 229

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