Rio is a city of glamour and glitz—but also of poverty and violence in the favelas that climb its hills. With the Olympics coming in 2016, the slums are getting a face-lift.
Photograph by David Alan Harvey
“We are guinea pigs,” declares Fabio do Amaral, a drug-gang killer turned evangelical minister. Brother Fabio preaches at a church in Santa Marta, one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. What he means is that the citizenry of Santa Marta is part of a plan to clean up the hillside slums for the 2016 Olympics.
The experiment was set in motion in November 2008, when special operations police invaded the slum, a collection of brick and cinder block houses rising like a rickety skyscraper threaded with footpaths ascending 788 steps along a steep incline below the famed Christ the Redeemer statue. Unlike your usual Rio police assault on favela drug dealers—a bloody hit-and-run using armored trucks known as “big skulls”—a contingent of 112 “pacification officers” arrived in Santa Marta that December and stayed to restore order and evict the gang. Then the government built brightly colored apartment blocks and installed new electrical service along with 700 free refrigerators. These days, the place is overrun by film crews and such red carpet visitors as Madonna and John McCain. (Many Brazilian tourists visit too, often entering a favela for the first time.)
Brother Fabio used to be part of the problem. Born in the slum in 1973, he grew up to be a hit man with the nickname “Bananeira” because he reminded people of a banana tree, walking the favela steps on his hands with his feet splayed in the air. He found faith with the help of a local nun, but full reform didn’t happen overnight. “I believe in gradual repentance,” says Fabio, flashing white teeth as he restrains two pit bulls that live on his roof. He looks like Mike Tyson dressed in church clothes: a short-sleeved yellow shirt and black nylon dress pants.
To celebrate Carnival, the city’s elite socialize at a masquerade ball in a grand old hotel.
On sunny days a million people with their sea of umbrellas may crowd Rio’s beaches.
A drug dealer holding bags of cocaine worth a few dollars apiece is one of a disappearing breed in Vidigal. Police officers who now occupy the favela are working to eradicate all such activity.
Yachts bob in Botafogo Bay, cradled between the beach and the tall rock known as Sugar Loaf.
A rock band plays oldies at a Copacabana bar.
The landmark 125-foot-tall statue of Christ the Redeemer rises over bays and beaches from the peak of Corcovado, in a panorama made from two images stitched together.
Ballet students strike a pose outside their school in the Cantagalo favela.
A Carnival dancer’s white shirt and blue hatband represent the colors of his samba school.
A trolley now idled for repairs normally services the historic area of Santa Teresa.
Finishing her errands, a favela resident passes military police taking part in a training exercise.
Tickets to the Carnival parades are expensive, so neighbors often gather curbside to watch for free on TV.
A candlelit procession along Copacabana beach on the evening of December 31 honors Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea. Followers launch flowers and other offerings into the waves to gain blessings for the year ahead.
At Carnival, ticket holders fill the Sambadrome to watch a parade that lasts until dawn.
Roving vendors in Copacabana sell everything under the sun, including whimsical trinkets.
This black-tie ball at the Copacabana Palace hotel, held during Carnival, is a tradition dating back to the 1920s. Past patrons of the landmark building, which rises above one of Rio’s most famous beaches, include Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Romance sizzles during Carnival season, when revelers fill the city.
Local TV actors kick back at an Ipanema hotel also favored by international celebrities like Beyoncé and Madonna.
Despite Rio’s deep social divisions, the beach is democratic. Rich and poor share the sand all day and into the evening.
A wall of video screens in Rio’s operations center displays real-time images captured by cameras on the streets. Inaugurated in 2010, the center allows the city to plan large events like Carnival and coordinate responses to emergencies like floods, fires, and landslides.
With millions of Brazilians crazy for soccer, potential stars like this goalkeeper practice at all hours along Rio’s more than 50 miles of beaches.
In the late afternoon on Ipanema, beachgoers play the popular game of altinho, or keep it up, using soccer moves to pass the ball in the air from person to person. Many people come here straight from work at the end of their shift.