Brazil: Surviving Rio’s Favelas
This photo essay depicts the life of favelas, or shantytowns, in Rio, Brazil, as the communities are deteriorated by gang violence. I document how the violent climate affects the residents and even people outside of the favelas.
I went to Rio first time in 1998. Then I couldn’t go back for nearly 10 years, despite the fact I wanted to return. The reason was probably I had some trauma. In 1998, I was almost killed by two wanabee-gangster teens. They strangled my neck and took my photo equipment and money. Before the accident I thought they were OK, since they were hanging out with other street children with whom I made a nice relationship by bringing food and joking. But I underestimated the risk. Unlike other street kids, I met the two teens first time at that day. On the way of my leaving, they followed me with smiles, and then attacked me. It was much worse than a simple attack, because I lost confidence and belief that being friendly makes more friends and life happier and better.
In early 2007 however, I got an assignment in Brazil. Though it was in Amazon, I realized how I had been missing Rio’s passion and energy. At the same time, I felt I had to fight my haunting bad memory. Several weeks later I revisted Rio. I started to document Rio’s favelas again, hoping my photo project would eliminate my trauma, and help raise awareness on favelas’s inhuman conditions, at which people think and even discuss what they can do about favelas and its violence-affected children.
The life of Rio Favelas contains extremely dangerous facts. Nearly each favela has its syndicate-like drug gang organization — sometimes more than two — as there exist more than 600 favelas in the metropolitan areas. Gangs control each favela with law of violence. They are so well armed, so well organized, that even Rio military police forces cannot easily step into the community.
At the superficial level, such law of violence could bring stability, because gangsters work hard to avoid other rival gangs’ attack and alleged corrupted police’s extortion on the community.
The reality, however, is contrary at the consequence. As the business of drug gangs is lucrative, the turf war of controlling favelas seems never to end between rivals gangs, or between gangs and militias who are usually former security officers, or between gangs and police. Some scholars call it even a form of the real warfare, since Rio’s urban war is very severe and hyper heavy weapons are often used. As many as one-fifth of youth in the drug gang members are killed within two years, as well as killing a large number of innocent people due to the cross shooting. In addition, police officers often become victims. In 2007 alone, more than 580 cops died due to the gang related violence.
Is it an old story? It might be yes, at least in a certain degree. As I already mentioned, I started this project in 1998. Yet after the revisit to Rio, I found the favelas’ violent landscape was still outstanding and even more deteriorating in many areas. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government and the international community have kept nearly ignoring the bloody tragedy.
There are so many desperate youths in favelas. The gang members themselves know well — about how risky being gang is. Many teen gangs think they are lucky if they live to the age of early 20s. Despite the fact, many favela youths and children still would like to join gang members. They often say the coolest is “King of Favela,” the leader of drug gangs. Yet, the reason to respect gangs is not only coming from money and power. It is also coming from hopeless feeling in favelas whose community and people are often neglected, discriminated by their own government. It is also coming from the harsh reality of favelas: prevalence of poverty, unemployment, no reasonable school and medical systems, and over-populated situations.
In such circumstances, even if people are not joining gangs, they have to look for their own way of survival. In the case of children, they are often likely to become street kids, after all, creating anther chance to be involved in gang or other illegal, dangerous activities, such as drug smuggling, robbery or prostitution. Unfortunately, often in future, they are also likely to be imprisoned, or even killed.
(This Rio favela project continues.)
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