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Brazil continues to reclaim its shantytowns

At the weekend, the authorities in Brazil sent in around 800 policemen and soldiers to reclaim the Mangueira shantytown, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest slums.

Brazil’s capital has around 6 million people, 1 million of whom live in the ‘favelas’ (shanty towns) which have grown up around the city. Mangueira is home to around 53,000 people and is possibly the most symbolic of the favelas to be occupied by the government’s ‘pacification team’, as it is famous for producing great samba artists and schools. But Rio’s largest slum is also close to the Maracana stadium, which will host the World Cup final in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. And the government of Brazil is therefore keen to bring the area under control well head of these high-profile international events.

Populated mostly by migrants from poorer areas of Brazil such as the rural regions of the north-east, the favelas have long been plagued by lawlessness. As strongholds for drugs traffickers, most have been virtual no-go areas for police and public sector workers and therefore health and education services have been lacking. As well as problems with drug dependency, many residents suffer from diseases such as tuberculosis and there are high rates of maternal and child mortality in the slums, with children vulnerable to diseases caused by unsanitary conditions.

Before moving into the Mangueira favela, the authorities dropped leaflets from helicopters notifying residents what would happen and distributing photos of wanted criminals.  However, when the police and special forces moved into the area in a pre-dawn operation, no shots were fired. The drugs traffickers had abandoned their premises and householders had hung white banners across the quiet streets. The president of Mangueira’s residents association told The Guardian’s reporter “people are asking for peace and we hope everything goes well”.

Experts are warning that the pacification of Rio’s favelas will simply push the drug gangs to more distant parts of the city. But for poor families living in Mangueira, there is now the chance of a better life, though it will take some time for residents to build trust with the authorities. People were reluctant to talk about the ‘pacification’ of the area. However, the love of samba will hopefully continue to provide an important social bond. Mangueira remains home to one of Rio’s best-known samba schools and the community takes a great pride in their dance, music and costumes, the inspiration for samba dating back to slaves who came to Brazil from Africa. When asked about the authorities moving into Mangueira, one resident simply replied “all I know about is samba”.

Laurinda Luffman signature