- Title: BRAZIL: Rio slums open for business as gangs ousted
- Date: 23rd December 2010
- Summary: CHILDREN ON SHACK
- Embargoed: 7th January 2011 12:00
- Location: Brazil, Brazil
- Country: Brazil
- Topics: Crime / Law Enforcement
- Reuters ID: LVA2Q30HCWNE9DB7SK1EAGHXV38
- Story Text: A sparkling Christmas tree atop a hill in Rio de Janeiro's Alemao slum is a powerful symbol of the community's recent liberation from gun-toting drug traffickers.
The fact that the tree was funded by a major bank symbolizes something less obvious -- that Rio's heavily-populated slums, or favelas, are open for business after years being partly shut out by the city's drugs war.
Nearly a month after troops drove traffickers out of Alemao and nearby areas, banks, utility firms and telecoms companies have joined government officials rushing to fill the void in this long-neglected favela of more than 100,000 people.
The operation, part of Brazil's most determined drive yet to bring the rule of law to its slums, raises the prospect that the one million or so residents of Rio's favelas will come much more fully into the formal economy in coming years.
While trappings of modern life like credit cards, cellphones and even high-end televisions have become common in Rio slums, residents' access to services and jobs has been complicated by the lack of security.
Rio's recent economic renaissance -- property prices are rocketing and the city is preparing for an offshore oil boom -- also stands to get a further boost as the number of bill- and tax-paying citizens rises.
Officials say they intend to expand police occupations to all of the remaining major gang strongholds by 2014, when Rio will be a World Cup host city and two years before it showcases itself to the world again as host of the Olympic Games.
Economist Andre Urani, who works at the Rio-based Institute for Studies on Work and Society, said the benefits of the integration of favelas are enormous.
"It's huge, it's incredibly huge. You are already feeling that right now, for instance, in the real estate. Real estate market in Rio is booming in the city as a whole, but especially beside the favelas and more inside the favelas," he said.
Alemao's Christmas tree was funded as a goodwill gesture by Banco Santander, one of several banks that are planning to expand in the favela. State-run Caixa Economica Federal opened its first agency on Tuesday (December 21) and Bradesco bank also plans to operate in Alemao soon. Telecoms firms are also expect to invest millions to expand its telephone, broadband and TV services, which have been pirated by slum residents in the past decades.
Across the community, workers have been rushing to fix tangled telephone and power lines and put the final touches on a cable car system -- mostly built before the invasion -- which outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva inaugurated on Tuesday.
Yet, an afternoon downpour in Alemao last week showed how much work lies ahead. Water surged up through broken drains, sending raw sewage into the narrow streets.
"It's too early to say anything; there are still a lot of things lacking. We lack a lot of investment; there are a lot of poor people. The government has to invest a lot for it be a real neighborhood," said Ester Avanci, the owner of a hole-in-the-wall clothes store, echoing a common view among residents.
A pervasive fear is that the government and the police could abandon Alemao and leave residents vulnerable to gang reprisals.
General Fernando Sardenberg, who will command a 2,000-strong "peace force" in Alemao mostly made up of army troops who served in Brazil's United Nations mission in Haiti, was aware of the upcoming challenges.
He said that winning back the trust of residents who have long been treated as second-class citizens was crucial during the occupation.
"This population that long remained as hostage to drug trafficking and violence, they are very much in need of this kind of conduct, of respect, of a demonstration of commitment in accomplishing things, at this moment when we are arriving there. So, I think that winning hearts and minds walks side-by-side with security," he said.
The next stage of transforming the slums will fall to urbanists like Luiz Carlos Toledo, a 67-year-old who has dreamed of bridging Rio's vast social divide since he was a young architecture student.
His firm was one of 40 chosen to redesign 582 slums by 2020 with initial public investments of 8 billion reais ($4.7 billion).
Beyond installing basic services like sewage, the plans envisage planting trees to create more green spaces, funicular railways for steep hillsides and the construction of sports and leisure centers.
Toledo, who has already led a partial remodeling of Rio's biggest slum Rocinha, said planners need to deal with skepticism from residents.
"The biggest barrier I found in Rocinha slum was the huge disbelief of the population. They didn't believe in anything after so many years being fooled by politicians' promises," he said.
Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, has already promised Alemao and the neighboring Penha complex an invasion of services including day-care centers, health centers and even a cinema.
It seems the state was now there to stay. Specially trained police have already occupied about a dozen of Rio's hundreds of slums over the past two years, slowly improving the police's reputation for brutality and corruption in favelas.
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