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In The Hills Of Rio, Shantytowns Get A Makeover

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On a recent day in Rio de Janeiro, police radios crackle in Providencia, a warren of cinder-block homes and narrow walkways where drugs and violence were once common.

But these days, it's just routine chatter. All is safe in this favela, one of the hundreds of slums built chockablock on the city's steep hills. A Rio advertising company is leading a tour for its employees and representatives of other companies.

Among those who have come is Raoni Lotar, a 30-year-old Carioca — resident of Rio.

"In the past, we hear how unsafe this place was, and now we're walking around," says Lotar who is visiting for the first time. "Now, we feel that the favelas [are] really being integrated into our city."

Rio de Janeiro is hosting soccer's World Cup in 2014, as well as the 2016 Olympics. The Brazilian city is remaking itself — not just the tourist hot spots, but also the favelas, long wracked by violence and despair.

The city's new focus has companies looking for opportunities in the favelas, and middle-class Brazilians like Lotar wandering in for the very first time.

Battling The Drug Traffickers

Just two years ago, Rio's favelas were in the grip of drug traffickers. Gang members shot down a police helicopter. Homicides reached nearly 7,000 a year in greater Rio.

Then the police employed a new strategy, says Capt. Glauco Schorcht, commander in Providencia.

"We used to come in, do an operation, then leave," he says.

Now, the captain says, the police for the first time set up stations in the favelas.

Community-policing units build ties to the community. With better security came a range of city services for the first time. The city is planning a cable car to connect to Providencia, located high on a hill next to the city center, repairing roads and improving the water-delivery system.

It's not just the government showing interest: Milene Costa takes welding classes from an oil company that trains favela residents.

"There were few opportunities for those who lived here," Costa says. "We were seen as people who couldn't be counted on."

Foreigners And Brazilians Visiting

Perhaps the greatest barrier to incorporating the favelas into the rest of Rio are the Cariocas themselves. In contrast, the music and art of the favelas attract Americans and Europeans.

Jason Scott, a 26-year-old from Colorado, is doing graduate research in a favela called Vidigal. Many of his Brazilian friends react with concern when they hear where he is.

"The first thing they say is, watch out, you know, be careful there. People have lived in Rio all their life looking at Vidigal and have never set foot in it. They've driven past it in their cars," Scott says. "It's still very much stigmatized."

But even that may be changing.

On a recent day, as music booms from speakers, Rejane Reis gives a tour of the biggest favela of them all, Rocinha. Motorcycles weave along its streets. Food stalls and vendors selling pirated movies take up all available free space.

The tourists this day are all Brazilians, and they are clearly fascinated, and perhaps a little wary.

Reis, though, says Rocinha shouldn't be feared — that it could also be admired.

"Here, they live as a big family. The way of life is completely different from our life outside," she says. "In our life, sometimes we don't know our neighbor."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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