The other side of Rio: City of God struggles in shadow of Olympic Games

Made famous by the 2002 film 'City of God,' Brazil's Cidade de Deus favela is seen as a community left behind, even as other parts of the city were transformed in the lead up to the Summer Games.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP
Residents move about the slum 'Cidade de Deus,' or City of God, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on July 22.

It is one of Rio's most renowned favelas, the Cidade de Deus made infamous in a film that helped cement a stereotype of the other side of the "Marvelous City" that is host of the Olympic Games — one where ghettos are ruled by drug lords and baby-faced criminals shoot to kill.

The City of God of today, located mere miles from Olympic Park, is not so easily defined. It is a place of contrasts that defies oversimplification, where poverty and violence persist alongside modest programs that aim to get some kids off the streets and offer a path that keeps guns out of their hands.

It is also the former home of Brazil's first gold medalist of the Rio Games. Judo champion Rafaela Silva grew up in Cidade de Deus. If not for the sport that helped her climb up and out, "I could still be living in City of God now," she said through tears after winning on Monday.

The shantytown of nearly 50,000 people became globally known after Paulo Lins' novel "Cidade de Deus" was made into a critically acclaimed movie by Brazilian film director Fernando Meirelles, who also helped create the Olympic opening ceremony that featured a segment depicting the city's favelas. Lins lived in City of God, and both the book and the movie tell a tale of poverty and violence and of youth faced with choices that could lead to an early death — or a fresh start.

While much of Rio was transformed for the Olympics, City of God is a community left behind and still mired in the many problems that were the basis of the movie that introduced its brutal realities to the world. Where other neighborhoods can take advantage of improvements in transit, housing and security, the only thing "Olympic" in this slum is the painted lane for accredited vehicles to drive past it as fast as they can.

"Here at City of God, our feelings about the Olympics are like a famous hip-hop song," said one local, Sergio Leal, known as DJ TR. "'Look at the black kid watching it all from the outside.' We are all watching it from the outside here."

In some ways, Cidade de Deus is unlike the hundreds of other favelas in Rio. On the western edge of the city, it's far from the beaches where tourists soak in the sun and spreads horizontally across a maze of streets rather than vertically up a hillside. It originally was a housing project, built in the 1960s during Brazil's military dictatorship when the government evicted residents from favelas in tony Ipanema, Leblon and Lagoa, and destroyed the shacks to make way for visitors.

"At that time, not too different from today, the state was determined to 'beautify' Rio de Janeiro by eliminating favelas from attractive areas of the city and moving the poor to isolated locations," said Mariana Dias Simpson, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses (Ibase) who has studied Rio's slums for more than a decade.

City of God, she said, is what local leaders call a "re-favela" — a settlement created to house evicted families that kept on growing until it became a favela again.

The community was among the first where the government dispatched its so-called police pacification units, or UPPs, which were created in 2008 to curb violence in favelas dominated by heavily armed drug gangs. Police set up local stations, took over territory once controlled by criminals and confiscated weapons, while the state of Rio invested in community centers for children and worked to expand basic services for residents.

In the lead-up to the Olympics, the UPPs were expanded to hundreds of favelas across Rio, and many say it felt as if authorities had succeeded in restoring the peace. President Barack Obama, along with the first lady and their two daughters, even paid a visit to Cidade de Deus in 2011. The president rolled up his sleeves and played soccer with some local kids as his family looked on.

"Here was President Obama coming to this community that once was a symbol of violence," said Juliana Barbassa, a former Associated Press reporter and Brazil native whose book, "Dancing with the Devil in the City of God," examines Rio's many challenges. She recalled one jubilant store owner's reaction: "'We used to go to them (the U.S.) to ask for money, to try to establish a relationship. And now they come to us.'"

Despite that high point, with police forces spread too thin among too many places, the lawlessness that had diminished in City of God and other slums has regained strength.

In the most violent section of Cidade de Deus — a place called Karate — criminals shot at police just one day before last week's Olympic opening ceremony; no officers were injured. Several residents interviewed as part of a study by the Ibase group reported that shootings between dealers and the police happen on almost a daily basis, sometimes when children are walking home from school.

"Violence levels were better all over for a few years ... we had no incidents for months," Leal said. "Now, every week, there is a shootout somewhere in City of God. It is not what we saw in the movie, but it is not promising either."

Children in the roughest parts of Cidade de Deus often become what the traffickers call "avioezinhos," or little planes. Avioezinhos keep watch and alert the drug bosses when police are near. It's considered a first step into the organization, like an entry-level job. It's not unusual to see thugs pointing guns at visitors to the neighborhood even as schoolkids come and go, unflinching because it's all customary to them.

Still, Dias Simpson and others noted that the vast majority of those living in City of God and other favelas have no involvement in crime at all. "Go to the most dangerous favela on a weekday, and you'll see ... moms going to work, guys dressed up for their construction jobs," Barbassa said. "This is essentially home to the working class of Rio."

"The film," added Dias Simpson, "is a good entertainment piece, but it's a fictional film. The reality of City of God is a lot more complex than that."

Leo Sagat lived in the neighborhood for 28 years before finally moving out. But he still comes back three days a week, morning and evening, to teach boxing to 270 people, mostly kids, out of a donated room with no air conditioning and three broken fans in one of the safer parts of the slum, appropriately called "Switzerland." Even still, next door, is a "boca de fumo" where dealers sell cocaine and other drugs, and some hang around to use them.

Sagat doesn't get paid; he gives his time because he knows sports could help inspire some to find a way out of the slum. His proof can be found in Judo champion Silva. "The legacy that I want is to stop kids like these from becoming criminals," he said.

In December, amid Olympic preparations, the government donated some boxing equipment to the community, a few gloves and bags that Sagat uses at his gym. But to those here, the gesture is meaningless given all that could have happened these past several years.

"People of City of God were promised more mobility, more investment in sport and security. They were also promised to be part of a tourism program that would help people in the region become tour guides for Rio, just like in other communities," said Christopher Gaffney, a University of Zurich researcher who spent six years in Brazil studying urban development. "But none of those materialized. The rapid-transit bus that could have integrated that region to the rest of Rio doesn't have any stops in City of God. With no integration, there is even more segregation."

Despite their beloved Silva's victory, the people of City of God will tell you the revelry surrounding these Olympic Games is not really felt by them. Jessica Santos is just 12, a resident of the shanty for two years who already dreams of more. Standing next to a creek tinged gray with pollution, she spoke wistfully about becoming an environmentalist maybe one day.

"Look at this creek here, it is completely dirty — and the water is being more treated than when my family arrived, but people throw their sofas, plastic, a lot of toxic things here.

"People wanted the Olympics to change things here, too," said the girl. "But they did not change much."

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