October 11, 2002
Narco News '02
It's not a
"Favela," it's a...
Life in the Ghettos
By Luis A. Gómez
Andean Bureau Chief
this world, a favela is a favela... once and always the same... the same in India, Bolivia, Mexico or Brazil.
It's a place where the expectations of life, for dignity and
justice, have indexes lower than those that can be measured by
the intellectual myopia of the World Bank. And here, in the most
industrialized city of the continent, with 18 million inhabitants
in the metropolitan zone and its urban sprawl, this correspondent
invites you on a tour
Let's go first to the 1960s, kind readers,
to understand the history. We see a Brazil with a recently installed
military dictatorship, it was literally a country in bankruptcy.
Look at those men in dark suits and very light skin
come from the north bringing money, investment and progress
the farms of this country and its wild jungle regions don't produce
enough products for the civilized world. But the men in black
bring, in their briefcases, the key to paradise
In the opening and closing of an eye,
this region of Brazil becomes, like magic, an industrial center:
autos, tractors, clothes, tires, sinks, electric appliances,
it's impossible to count the dozens of factories that
now occupy a country where, not to long beforehand, there were
only houses, mansions, some roads and some haciendas nearby.
Sao Paulo, once the capital of an American empire, a city with
history and culture, will be until 1970 an urban area that was
product of an economic miracle as impressive as that of Germany
after World War II.
And thanks to the gringos dressed in black
(almost all of them bankers and industrialists), thanks to military
order, the first immigrants begin to arrive here to keep the
chimney of production stoked.
Mirror of the World
continuing this trip, pay close attention
to the map in your tourist guide.
you will see, with so much territory
near water, along the Southern Atlantic, Brazil is ideal for
receiving migrations from the entire world. This has happened.
The Portuguese, of course, have come, and they brought slaves
from Africa. The Italians, Japanese, Spaniards and Arabs, too
In recent years, Peruvians, Bolivians, and Colombians began to
arrive. Our cities, all of them, as you can see, are populated
by people of every color, size and shape. It can be said that
Brazil is like one planet inside another
or like a mirror
of this world.
There, each city is a smaller mirror that
reflects the bigger one. Each neighborhood is yet another mirror.
And each favela is too, and, well, it's a mirror that's a bit
mistreated, that poorly reflects all the other mirrors
At present, Brazil has nearly 170 million inhabitants. And, properly,
it's not a poor country: the Gross National Product per capita
was $7,625 U.S. dollars in the year 2000. However, as the government
of the current president, the Social Democrat Fernando Hernrique
Cardoso, recognizes, "for more than 500 years we have been
a country marked by social inequality." More than half of
Brazil's families live on less than $100 dollars a month.
But so that nobody worries, because this
government has created various social assistance and security
programs, like the Program to Eradicate Child Labor or that which
counters sexual abuse of minors
thanks to them, some 50
million youths throughout the country have been able to leave
the violent environment of the favelas behind and continue studying
Well, left outside of these programs are more than half-a-million
kids, but nobody's perfect.
The Brazilian favelas have names like
City of God, Paradise-opolis, Heliopolis and others. There, power
stays always in the hands of the mafias of narco-trafficking
and organized crime.... We'll continue with more of the general
history in a moment, because we're already near our first stop,
of Sao Paulo, there, look, on this beautiful hillside where the first houses made of old hardwood already
come into view. These people who you see walking, with their
old furniture and carrying their bags in carts, or on their backs,
have come from all corners of Brazil. Some, you'll be able to
see, are black. Others are yellow or brown. Some have indigenous
They've all come here to see if there is hope
to keep on living. And when they have the opportunity, the enter
the factories to work, or sell things in the street, or serve
as laundry men and women. They work for the wealthy.
Pay close attention to how these people,
without money or education, are populating the hill. The trees
disappear from the ground. But they're left at peace in the 1970s
by the good military government, if they behave themselves and
don't become communists (for those people: jails, exile, torture
And some services are brought to the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, if they steal a little or begin to deal drugs, that's
not such a problem
In the end they continue and they keep
including in Rio de Janeiro we have various favelas
like this and they're much bigger, a lot bigger.
In this sense, Jaguaré in the 1980s
was, like almost every favela, a center for drug distribution,
refuge of criminals and the home of many people who, although
poor, worked honorably, but already not in the factories. The
people of Jaguaré began to sell merchandise in the streets,
to work cleaning sewers
This life, without security nor
rest, puts them at the margins of the law, and the situation
radicalizes quickly. That's why the police of Sao Paulo began
to crack down on them, to put them in jail for any pretext
the matter grows more difficult every day, because so many poor
people don't have, under the neoliberal economic schemes, any
possibility of getting out of their misery.
That's how it was when the Inter-American
Development Bank (BID, in its Portuguese initials) decided to
support the government of Brazil to improve the lives of the
favela residents. In 1995, for example, the BID spend $180 million
dollars for a program to improve the favelas of Rio de Janeiro
and later, on July 10th, 1996, $250 million more for the favelas
of Sao Paulo. The charity (at high interest rates) was applied
but with poor results in Rio. In Sao Paulo, the then-mayor of
the city, Paulo Maluf (do you remember this civilian who served
in the military dictatorships? This past October 6th he was practically
finished politically thanks to the good results of the elections),
well, he took the money and constructed, for example, three buildings
in Jaguaré that six years later started to fall down (due
to the low quality of the construction materials), that don't
fit nearly one-sixth of the people. The major part of those resources
were detoured to other matters and various pockets
neither Rio nor Sao Paulo got better, really, the changes were
not made at the root and today, they say, life in the favelas
is worse than it has ever been before.
Twenty-four million people live in Jaguaré,
24 million souls in a space no bigger than four square kilometers
(two square miles). The streets, where there are streets, are
in disrepair, poor. Many of the houses are barely four walls
of old hardwood. Some people, above all the shopkeepers of the
barrio, have telephones and almost all the dwellings have electricity.
From this beautiful hill, look, today,
at the factories and the large buildings of polluted Sao Paulo,
trying to find its dignity anew, another path to continue living.
"The people here don't like it said that they're living
in a favela
To say that implies that they've lost their
they don't say it naturally, but with shame,"
comments Paulo César Pereira, president of the Jaguaré
Neighborhood Association, and a local political leader. Why?
Because they're poor? Yes, in part...
As one walks up or down the streets of
Jaguaré, faces appear on some sidewalks, almost always
looking with distrust. The streets go on for all sides and each
plot of land doesn't have more than four little houses in an
area of less than 150 square meters. There is no potable water,
and no full sewer system. The people, improvising, have created
small drainage systems, many of them under open sky. In the streets,
over the rocks or soil, the children play barefoot and semi-naked
And in the canals, another mirror, it is possible to find sympathetic-looking
rats who fight for their rights.
As I told you before, kind readers, the
favela is a poor neighborhood, like any other, violent and unhealthy.
And Jaguaré, this small neighborhood, is like many others.
Except, perhaps, for the fact that now Paulo and the leadership
of the Neighborhood Association are fighting to give it a new
"It's not a favela, it's a community."
seems a little older than 40. He's mulatto, thin and tall. His
face is pockmarked and scarred. His
short hair, wide nose, his expression, remind one a little bit
of Carl Lewis, but unlike the athlete Paulo César Pereira
always has a kind and peaceful look on his face. He's a shopkeeper
right now, "but I've worked in everything. I was a farmer,
a worker, a street salesman and now I support myself with this
store where I sell coffee, bread and articles for the home."
He's the political leader. The people say hello respectfully
and some children, coming home from school, kiss his hand affectionately,
as is the custom with those who lead and guide.
Narco News: When did you arrive in Jaguaré?
Personally, I moved to Jaguaré 12 years ago, but this
community has a history that is more than forty years old, when
the first migrants came from the North and Northeast of this
Narco News: And what is your role as president of the Neighborhood
Ever since I was elected by the community, I've tried to bring
the works that we see have been necessary for more or less four
decades. Not just bringing better services or regularizing others,
like water and sewage, which people here only acquire clandestinely;
but we've also succeeded, for example, in covering a huge and
dangerous hole at the entrance of the community (this happened
only a short time ago). And we're trying to bring some social
assistance programs forward, coordinated by a priest who lives
among us with the help of volunteers.
Narco News: How many people currently live here?
According to the most recent census, a very superficial census,
there are 24,000 people in Jaguaré living in 7,000 family
(Do the math, kind
readers: 3.5 people per household on plots of roughly five-by-five
Narco News: And the problems of narco-trafficking and criminality?
I would be lying if I told you that we had rid ourselves of crime
or narco-trafficking in Jaguaré. But we have succeeded
at changing some things and reducing the problems to minimum
levels. There's still consumption of drugs, but this problem
is more or less the same, or much less, than what exists in the
rich neighborhoods of Sao Paulo. Ever since I was elected as
president, I've been able to reduce the crime rate by using various
social policies of the federal government and City Hall: Now
the young people of Jaguaré have better opportunities
to stay in school, to participate in sports and cultural activities,
and they don't have as much time, as they did before, to think
about dedicating themselves to illegal activities. I think that
at this rate, as long as the people are working on other things,
we will be able to speak, in a short time, of the disappearance
of the drug problem.
Narco News: Then you are well organized
is there some
political force that you identify with?
We're not well organized. But we need to be. The community has
begun to unite to utilize the social programs of City Hall.
I imagine, by the way, because I don't
have the information, that the people feel that saying they live
in a place called a "favela" is burdensome. When they
speak this word they do it very shyly, hiding the word
They don't like to say that they live in a favela
don't think the way to raise the self-esteem of those who live
here is to stop using the word. But, then, how to do it? Through
the social assistance programs, and those like the "Barrio
Legal" program of City Hall (in the hands of the Workers
Party) whose first phase is the installation of basic sanitary
systems. I believe that, starting with this, and electricity,
and constructing parks and leisure areas, that the identity of
the people who live in a place called a favela
"favela" is very heavy, it has its own mythology
it's identified with drug trafficking, with crime
99.9 percent of the people who live in the favela are workers,
humble people, I think they don't like to say that they live
Narco News: Pardon me, Paulo, but did you vote for Lula on
No, I didn't vote in the first round. I will speak for myself,
as Paulo, not as a leader of the community. I didn't vote because
if Lula had won in the first round he would feel too strong,
he would have had too large a victory, and he would have had
the ability to do a lot of things without consulting society.
It think that a good government is one that puts all the decisions
to society, that a good governor does what society allows and
asks. That's why I didn't vote. But in the second round I will
vote for Lula.
Narco News: Then, do you think that a Lula government will
improve the situation in Brazil?
I think there is a grand expectation that he will, and the possibility
of an unprecedented improvement
but hopes are raised sky
high for this, because Lula comes from the workers, he knows
this world and the problems of the worker, so there are enormous
opportunities for change. Now, this might or might not happen,
but the expectation exists, because the great majority of the
Brazilian people is of humble origin and Lula knows what is needed.
so, we'll leave Paulo to work now,
in his shop and in his community. It's been important for us
to enter this world because, about thirty years ago, in the ABC
industrial belt of Sao Paulo, in a favela just like this one,
Lula began his struggle and it was his neighbors and his companions
who gave the initial push to the Workers Party. If you like,
or ask, we can come back to visit a favela, excuse me, a popular
We'll return to these places where, in spite
of everything, life fights to bloom.
more Narco News Click Here
that Fights to Bloom