A day in Rocinha


A brief History:

In the 15th century the Portuguese discovered and set about colonising Brazil, and shortly after imported slaves taken by boat from Africa. When the slave trade was abolished in 1888, the newly liberated slaves went on mass to set up homes in the mountains and jungles around the cities where they had been forced to work. Today these have basically turned into huge highly functioning squats, named Favelas (Fa=black, Vela=boats, basically ‘the black boats’, the name given to the people (ex slaves) who founded them).

A walking tour of Rocinha:

In November 2010 I went on a walking tour in ‘Rocinha’; the largest Favela in Rio de Janeiro. It turns out to also fortunately pose as one of the safer Favelas too, in part because of the interesting logic of the drug lords who run it (more on this shortly).

I was picked up in a local taxi from my hostel early in the morning with a handful of others also completing the tour, and from there we were driven near to the top of the Rocinha to meet our local guide; a resident in the Favela and a volunteer in one of the schools. He was friendly and direct in his approach to talking us through the do’s and don’ts of what would become a very interesting next two hours. The main gist of our briefing was as follows; we could take some photos of our surroundings, but not of anyone with a gun, any of the police (who can be merrily found corruptly rubbing shoulders with the mafia inside the Favelas), or of any of the motorbikes.

A word about the motorbikes:

There are around 2000 motorbikes in the Favela, and the vast majority of them are illegal- i.e. stolen. Also the motor-taxi drivers (basically a taxi system of motorbikes transporting people from the bottom to the top of the Favela) prefer not to be photographed as they don’t have licences (not necessary in the Favela where government jurisdiction ceases to exist). I did however manage to steal one cheeky snap of some bikes in one of the short cuts (a small yet victorious prize!):

A new approach to paying the bills:

Back to the walking tour, we stopped firstly at one of the electricity posts, and our guide explained how the people wire up cables to steal their electricity from the rich. There were times when they had meters to pay reduced rates for the electricity-but the owner of the company behind the meters was shot dead, and that soon stopped. We asked why the government allowed them to do this and were told that it basically reduces down to power. The drug lords are rich, and own a lot of guns (a lot) and the government are therefore reasonably powerless to come in and overthrow the people living in the Favelas (which in this one alone number 400,000). To illustrate this, our guide told us just a few weeks ago the mafia shot a government helicopter out of the sky using bazookas. He also explained “if you have any sense, you don't start a fire in a petrol station”. There is little doubt about who is in charge inside the Favelas.

Moving on from this we walked up to the top of the Favella where the views over Rio and the rest of Rocinha are somewhat breathtaking. On the way up I caught a brief glimpse of a man driving past on a motorbike carrying a gun, but didn't see anyone else with a visible weapon in my time there. Our guide explained that the mafia display their guns to remind everyone in the Favela of the order of things. He also explained how the mafia protect their Favelas (perhaps with some backward logic) by publically shooting anyone breaking the law of the Favela which is not to steal, fight, rape, cause trouble etc inside the Favela, and also a plethora of other interestingly illogical rules, for example; if a motor-taxi crashes and kills its passenger the mafia will shoot the driver so they are inspired to drive carefully! The law also protects the incredibly wealthy neighbours (who's swimming pool clad villas and £2000 per term schools are literally a stones throw away from the Favela), because they buy a lot of drugs, and their presence is therefore good for business, and anyone jeopardising that by attacking or intimidating them is therefore extinguished by the mafia.


In fact much of the danger in the Favela stems not at all from the people inside the Favelas themselves but from the threat of war between neighbouring Favelas (rival gangs competing to take over the land, and more importantly and lucratively, the drug trade). On days when fights are on, tourists don't enter and the bosses often shut the Favella down (no-one in no-one out). This apparently happened once on a tour and the tourists were stuck inside during a three day long shoot out-apparently they were a group of Israeli guys who far from scared offered to take up a gun and join in!)

After this we walked down a little way through what are known as the 'shortcuts' (the alleys that run between the houses). A lot of them are currently decorated with world cup inspired graffiti at the moment as excitement for 2014 grows among the Brazilians, understandably in the Favelas as we learned almost the entire Brazilian team originally came from Favelas.

Whilst walking through the lanes our guide explained more about how the housing situation works. The houses nearer the bottom of the Favela are more expensive to rent, and the rates gradually decrease the nearer to the top you are. When someone builds their house, they build a floor above it, and rent it to someone else for income. The next person will then build above themselves again, and rent it to someone else, and so on and so forth. The person at the bottom will only become involved in what is going on if the building work is shoddy enough to start compromising the safety of the building. The building work is almost all therefore amateur, which on the one hand is striking in how clever the people have to be to build so much unaided by machinery or training, and on the other hand rocks with concern. The guide was explaining that there is a genuine view amongst Brazilians that God truly is watching over the city because they never have earthquakes. It's hard to imagine the scale of damage and life loss there would be if this were not the case.

 As we exited the short cuts, our guide told us there was a bus to take us back down, but if we wanted we could get motor-taxis. Motor-taxi all the way! Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photos but it was a lot of fun, and a great experience.

Some final thoughts:

I've always had a bit of a fascination with Favelas, and the charm of their alternate 'forget the law' foundations. So for me this was a great experience that left me questioning morality and considering the merits of anarchy. You can't really help but admire the people in the Favelas-they come from a legacy of being used by the rich, and now they are proverbially holding a finger up to them as they embrace a lifestyle funded by stealing from the rich and selling them drugs. Rough justice all round.

I'll leave you with the final view I had from the Favela before I left. Colourful, unique, busy, charming, dangerous, deprived, and quintessentially Brazilian.  

(For further interest please check out the film ‘City of God’ available for purchase on Amazon).