Youth Torn Between Gangs and the Government

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

In Lieu of Public Works

Brazil Portrait 1
A man in the Rocinha favela rewires a neighbor's house.

The narrow sidewalks of the favela twist down the hillside like flights of stairs. Some are bordered by iron handrails, like one where a man with a kitchen knife sits, precariously balanced. If he were to fall to his right, he'd land on another stretch of sidewalk about 12 feet below.

With his left hand, the man separates an electrical cable from a messy tangle attached to a wooden pole. With the knife blade, he peels the black plastic casing from the cable, revealing a dense network of smaller wires that twist inside like angel-hair pasta.

"One of the neighbors just got a 110-volt refrigerator, and right now her house is set up for 220 volts," he says. "I'm running a 110-line to her house so she can use the refrigerator."

The man doesn't work for a public utility company -- such agencies usually don't serve the favelas. If residents here have services like electricity or running water, it's usually because they have connected the wires or pipes to their homes themselves, or else had a friend -- like the knife-wielding amateur electrician -- do it for them.

The government recently announced a multimillion-dollar urbanization project for Rocinha, a plan to add new roads, schools and playgrounds, but it hasn't begun yet and it won't touch most of the neighborhood when it does. So at any given moment, the sidewalks of the favela teem with do-it-yourself improvement projects: Around a corner, a group of men dig up the sidewalk to get at a water pipe; others stagger past with 110-pound bags of Portland cement on their backs.

The risks associated with living in the middle of never-ending work zones are tacitly accepted, barely worth mentioning. There are no "Danger" or "Caution" signs posted around the favela. If there were, there would be little room for anything else.

"If you connect the wrong wires," the man says as he works on the electrical cable, "it will explode."

Balancing on the rail, the man loses grip of his knife, and it begins to fall. A young boy of about 6 years old walks along the sidewalk below. The knife clanks on the pavement in front of the boy, missing him by about two feet.

The boy looks up and smiles, then fetches the knife. Next Story »

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