Well-heeled Rio gets worrying glimpse of favela violence

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


When hundreds of Brazilian soldiers battled heavily armed drug traffickers in Rocinha last week, anxiety flared not only in Rio's biggest favela but also in chic neighborhoods just down the road.

Residents in the swanky areas of Gavea and Sao Conrado, just a stone's throw -- or a bullet -- away, comtemplate the occasional spike in violence with a mixture of worry and resignation.

"We follow the situation with apprehension not knowing whether it's going to blow up again and if we are going to have to rush to school to pick up the kids," said local entrepreneur Leonardo Ferreira, whose two small children go to school close to the favela.

"It's a very bad situation, which is affecting our concentration at work and our productivity."

Nearly 1,000 soldiers were brought in to quell a week of gunbattles between rival gangs in a turf battle in Rocinha after police admitted they were unable to cope.

- Not the last time -

Mauro Sacramento cut a graceful arc through the sky as he landed his paraglider on the golden sand of Sao Conrado beach. Today, under orders from the military, the paragliding instructor and his tourist client gave over-flying Rocinha a miss.

The recent shootings in the favela "certainly had a great impact here," said Mauro. "We are neighbors of Rochina and sometimes, depending on the direction of the wind, we fly over it."

These days, when people schedule a flight by email or phone, they ask: "How are things today, quiet?"

"It's very sad because this is a magnificent place. It could be one of the best places to live in the world," he said.

In front of the tropical bay, Miguel Eduardo saw a 25 percent drop in sales of fruit-juice and cakes at his kiosk.

"People were afraid to come," he said. "There were already situations like this in the time of Nem," a drug-trafficker who was effectively master of Rocinha before his arrest and imprisonment in 2011.

"This has always happened and will happen again."

- Living with the drug gangs -

Rene Hasenclever, president of the Gavea residents association, is similarly resigned. "It's not the first time and it's not the last time."

In the last few days, "schools have closed. You see fewer cars in the street. People are afraid to go out."

Here in southern Rio the rich live cheek-by-jowl with the surrounding favelas.

Nowhere else in Brazil do rich and poor live so close together as in Rio, whose poorest neighborhoods are part of the fabric of the city and not kept at arm's length in the outskirts, as in Brasilia or Sao Paolo.

Thus, the rich, distributed mainly along the coast, are within reach of the gunfire that plagues daily life for 1.5 million Cariocas - the quarter of the population living on the impoverished slopes.

The tight-knit neighborhoods are home mostly to working class people, but have suffered from decades of being ignored by the government, creating vacuums filled by gangs.

"It's not the favelas that bother us. It's the drug trafficking. I've got to live with that and sometimes it's scary," said Hasenclever.

Given the rising crime rate and the increasing inability of police to retake control of the favelas, the presence of soldiers near Gavea -- and a general's announcement that they would stay as long as is needed -- reassures computer scientist Romulo Silva.

"We've become accustomed here to looking at cellphone applications (about shootings). We exchange information like 'there is an operation happening in Rocinha,' 'they say there are criminals hiding in the forest'..."

"Common sense would tell me to stay at home, but I have decided not to let myself be ruled by fear."