The view from Mangueira: a snapshot of Brazil’s ‘Favelas’

Brian Wright O’Connor | 10/10/2013, 6 a.m.
For the last eight years, coaches assigned by Flamengo, one of the Brazil’s storied "fútbol" clubs, have drilled hundreds of ...
Members of a youth soccer team in the Mangueira favela in Rio de Janeiro greet a visitor to their practice field. (Left to right) Marcelo da Silva Salles, Lucas Lopes Custodio, Isaac Lopes, Wellington Carolos, Bruno Nascimento and George Pereira. Photo courtesy of Erint Images

Confidence in civic institutions is rock bottom in a country with a murder rate of 21 per 100,000, the world’s highest. There were close to 41,000 killings in Brazil last year, almost all of them in the favelas. By comparison, India, with six times the population, had the same number of murders. Even worse, less than 8 percent of Brazil’s killings are ever solved, compared to a 65 percent closure rate in the U.S.

To the residents of Mangueira, that sort of figure confirms that Brazil’s white elite consider them disposable.

Poised on a steep hillside overlooking Rio’s famed Maracana soccer stadium, Mangueira is home to about 55,000 people. Mostly poor and black, they enjoy some measure of fame from Brazil’s other obsession — the sensuous sounds of hip-shaking samba. The green-and-pink colors of Mangueira’s famed samba school dominate the yearly carnival competitors who parade by the packed stands of the Sambadrome in flamboyant costumes.

Maracana, the Olympus of world soccer, taunts as much as it entices Mangueira’s poor. From high on the hillside, they catch a narrow glimpse of Maracana’s manicured green pitch through the vast oculus opening to the sky.

During a recent tournament, a warm up to the World Cup coming to Brazil in 2014, over 100,000 fans arriving to watch the Confederations Cup final between the host country and Spain were greeted by cordons of protesters holding signs and chanting anti-government slogans.

The favelas’ embittered poor have long complained of spotty services, inadequate schooling and police repression, particularly the violent crackdown in the slums meant to “pacify” the city in advance of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. But the anger in this oil-rich country has filtered up the socioeconomic ladder.

The flashpoint came in June, when the government announced a ten-cent increase in bus fares, sparking the largest protests since the fall of the dictatorship. The ruling Workers Party, headed by President Dilma Rousseff, plunged in popularity, with critics lambasting multi-billion-dollar preparations for the World Cup while education and infrastructure needs go ignored.

Gabriel de Melo, an 11-year-old defender on the Mangueira team, supported the demonstrations, but doubts that they’ll result in significant improvements to his community. Instead, he thinks any benefits of changes in government policy will help the lighter-skinned residents of the beachfront neighborhoods and wealthier suburbs. “Very few projects help us out,” says de Melo. “We’re always asking for help but we get ignored or promised improvements that never come.”

In Rocinha, where the Developing Minds Foundation supports a day care center and a computer lab, improvements have often come at the expense of residents. Incursions by the pacification police have resulted in scores of deaths, with few officers held accountable.

Trudging up one of Rocinha’s winding, narrow stairways that snake up the mountainside like capillaries, a visitor is greeted by anti-police graffiti and sullen looks from residents suspicious of outsiders. In the “crèche,” or day care center, scenes of happy toddlers crawling across freshly scrubbed mats and children dipping their hands in face-paint form a stark contrast to the stench of raw sewage and tangles of illegal electrical lines running along the favela’s near-vertical arteries.