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A favela is a slum, an illegal settlement built on squatted lands.

A favela is a slum, an illegal settlement built on squatted lands. Brazil has one of the worst distributions of wealth in the world and the poor have got to live somewhere. The favela dwellers build their houses out of wood and garbage, then later when they have the money, they upgrade to a home made concrete home.

There are no government schools in the favelas, there’s usually only home made water supply and sewer system and the electric is acquired by gato (a ‘cat’ hook that’s thrown onto the electric supply to siphon power). Those who are born and who die in favelas aren’t recorded – for the Brazilian government, it’s a crime to be poor.

Naturally, the poor in Brazil don’t take their fate lying down and scratch out whatever kind of life they can for themselves. With almost no education or opportunities and an alarming incidence of teenage drug abuse the career options open to a Brazilians from the favelas are limited to selling on the street, cleaning houses, drug dealing or prostitution.

In Rio de Janeiro, however, favelas arose on the hills overlooking the rich neighbourhoods (where else in the world do the poor get the sea views?) and this gave them a distinct advantage; with so much wealth nearby they were in the perfect position to deal drugs on a large scale.

The drug lords rule the favelas and establish a strict regime within. No one may rob or kill anyone else within the favela without facing severe punishment. Degenerative drugs like crack and heroin typically aren’t allowed in though cocaine and marijuana is readily available. The drug lords employ the youths to deal drugs on the street corners – minors can’t be prosecuted in Brazil.

There are two main drug cartels in Rio de Janeiro: commando vermelho and tercero commando. The political origins of these cartels has since become fairly cloudy but they still periodically conduct wars between each other, invading favelas and taking over the cocaine business there.

Most of the warfare in the favelas though takes place against the military police who are always making surprise raids. The MP’s are very corrupt in Rio de Janeiro and have no hesitation in shooting any young black guy they see on the street in the favela – In fact they used to have a shoot to kill policy when they got bonuses for each ‘criminal’ they killed in the line of duty. The year those bonuses were rescinded the death rate fell dramatically.

The military police are also famous for raiding the favelas, robbing the dealers of their cocaine and then ‘selling’ it back to them. The cops in Rio make next to nothing so they see it as a fair way to make a living.

The people in the favelas let off fireworks when the military police are making a raid and you soon learn to distinguish the sound of fire crackers from the gun shots that often follow soon afterwards. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the favelas, the walls of their houses are often so thin that stray bullets pass easily through the walls.

Yet in some ways the inhabitants of the favelas don’t have it as bad as others who are struggling to make a living in Brazil. As one beer vendor told us:

“In the favela they don’t have to pay rent, they don’t pay electric bills or water. All they have to do is find food.”

Yet it’s miserable for the old as the favelas are often built on slopes and the staircases are daunting for anyone over 60. The hills were deemed unsafe for construction and in fact hundreds of people do frequently die in landslides following heavy rain.

It’s also a precarious place to live as the nature of the drug business entails suspicion and paranoia. A guy selling coconut juice told us about freedom of movement in his favela in Jaripagua:

“I have to take the bus for three hours every day just to come here and sell. But where I live I can’t visit someone in a favela ten minutes away – if someone saw me do it they would take me for a rat. Being an informant is a capital offence where I live – I saw a guy executed in the street last week in the middle of the afternoon.”

Travelers should never attempt to enter favelas unless they have a trusted guide with them. Yes, favelas are full of drugs and guns but they are not safe places to go wandering around. Even if they did let you in to buy marijuana or coke, the police would probably catch you on the way back down.

An exception to this in Rio de Janeiro might be the favela funk parties that have become trendy. Still, you should go with a Brazilian who knows his way around and only take what you’re happy to lose.

Learn more about favelas in Rio de Janeiro