Youth Torn Between Gangs and the Government

Stories by Monte Reel, Washington Post Staff Writer | Photos by Fred Alves for The Washington Post

The Heart of the Favela

Brazil Portrait 1
Houses cling to the hillside in the Rocinha favela outside Rio de Janeiro.

Most taxi drivers won't enter this favela, called Rocinha, and it's a sure bet that most wouldn't be able to find their way around even if they chanced it. They stop at the mouth of the neighborhood, on a street ringing the bottom of the hill, where motorcycle boys offer rides into the heart of the favela.

It's a low-gear climb. Looking up the incline at thousands of tumbledown houses, the hillside looks like an avalanche of brick and mortar, frozen still in the middle of a freefall.

The motorcycles can only go so far. Most of the buildings are reachable only by twisting sidewalks that honeycomb the neighborhood. The actual population depends on who's doing the guessing: Some say it's about 100,000, others say it's closer to 400,000.

In the middle of the labyrinth, Solange Santos da Silva sits on a stool in the crowded kitchen of a neighbor's house. Her 4-year-old daughter sits on her knee. Santos da Silva, who has lived here all of her 26 years, looks at the top of her daughter's head as she tries to describe what it's like to live in a neighborhood where police and drug gangs fight regularly, letting bullets fly freely.

"If my daughter sees police coming around, she already knows to be afraid," she says.

One reason residents fear the police more than the gangs is because the gangs live here. The police, on the other hand, sometimes lose their bearings when raiding the neighborhood, especially at night.

Among residents here, it's assumed that most of the errant bullets come from near the bottom of the hill, following an uncertain trajectory up into the heart of a neighborhood that remains largely impenetrable to outsiders.

"There are no controls over how houses are built, or where they put streets or alleys, so we don't know where one house ends and another begins," admits Rodrigo Oliveira, commander of a special forces unit of the civil police that regularly raids Rio's favelas. "We don't know the areas like the gangs do. They are always up in a higher position, looking down on us." Next Story »

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