Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil. According to an official census around 70,000 people live in the favela, but unofficial estimates are as high as 2- or 300,000.
In eight years time – from 2003 until 2011 – 40 million of the 200 million citizens in Brazil joined the middle class, and many of them live in favelas like Rocinha. In a way the development of Rocinha is exemplary of the change that Brazil has gone through in the last decades. When Rocinha was founded it consisted of simple shacks built on a steep hill prone to mudslides. Now the neighborhood consists of brick and concrete houses that are sometimes three or four stories high, most of them with basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity. In reality, Rocinha is now classified as a “barrio” (neighborhood), and is no longer technically speaking a favela.
Rocinha, like many other favelas, has been known to be a hiding place for drug traffickers and other criminals. But since FIFA appointed Brazil as the host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup the authorities launched a new project in 2008: Pacification. It was finally the time to clean the favela of the criminals. The goal was to send the traffickers to prison, drive out the gangs, and have the police take control of the slums that for generations had been outside of control of the authorities. While the strategy was successful in the first few years the police has more recently been widely criticized for the way they have acted inside the favelas.

The favela is located on a hill slope in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The face of the favela has changed a lot since it was founded, and so has life for the inhabitants. One lifelong citizen of Rocinha explains how families used to live off meat from cats that they caught and threw in bags before killing them. How kids made their own toys from garbage wood, metal cans and wire. And how some of his friends were killed when they drove down the hill in homemade go-carts and were hit by trucks passing by the favela. Not to mention a mudslide that killed dozens of favela inhabitants.
A view of the main street leading up the hill through the favela. the street is full of shops, restaurants, dentists, juice bars, hair dressers and travel agents.
Two police officers from the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro State (Polícia Militar do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, PMERJ) stand on a street with their guns drawn during a police operation in the favela. Seconds later they move backwards down the street and disappear around a corner. No shots are fired. Not this time.
Capoeira training in the favela. The training session takes place in the sports ground of a local school in the evening. Both kids and adults participate in the training. They take turns to “fight” each other one on one in a kind of dancing battle where they gracefully move from side to side, jump on their hands and feet doing cartwheels and kicks, while the rest form a circle around them, singing and playing music. There are many sports clubs around the favela that offer an opportunity for the kids and teenagers to stay off the streets.
4-year-old Yasmin was born in Rocinha. Her mother has lived in the favela for 15 years. They keep a small birdcage with birds that Yasmin and her older brother Victor Hugo play with in the small alley outside their apartment. Some of the birds have had their wings cut so that they cannot fly away. But Yasmin and Victor Hugo have to keep a close eye on the birds so that they are not caught and eaten by one of the many stray cats.
The favela is woven together by a chaotic web of wires. Not everything is completely organized, but at the same time the development of Rocinha is exemplary of how Brazil has changed through the last decades. When the neighbourhood was founded it was a slum with simple houses built on a hill slope prone to mudslides. Now the houses of the favela are mostly built of concrete and bricks, and most of them have basic sanitation, water and electricity.
Monica, a seamstress, works in the back room of a small family run store that sells bikinis they make themselves. Mariana and her mother Margarita run the store together and it was Margarita who herself came up with the idea of making their own designs and to do the production themselves. Their secret is to sell the tops and shorts separately.
A view of one of the streets in the favela.
Renata gives Sheara a pedicure treatment in one of the many beauty parlours in the favela. New beauty parlours pop up everywhere in the favela, giving testament to the economic development the favela is going through.
Tattoos are very popular in Brazil, and no less so in the favela. Rio de Janeiro is one of the places in the world that people have the most tattoos. It is warm all year long, and life is lived outdoors and on the beaches. During the soccer World Cup the Brazilian national team was declared to be the most tattooed of all.
According to local sources, the drug lord Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, also known as “Nem”, used to live around 100 meters up this small street on the left. He was Rio’s most wanted man and the “boss” of Rocinha from 2007 until 2011 when he was arrested while trying to escape in the boot of a Toyota Corolla.rnFor decades Rocinha, just like other favelas, has been known as a relatively safe haven for criminals, especially gangs of armed drug traffickers. In the eighties small gangs went on trips from the slums to the popular beaches Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon to rob the tourists. At the same time drug sales started and the gangs used a part of their money to raise the standard of living in the favela.rnThey paid for bricks so that people could leave their makeshift wooden shacks and build better and safer homes. They financed a playing field for the kids. And they gave families clothing and food.rnIn this way the criminal gangs ironically created a kind of social security system in Rocinha and other favelas, a system that was completely outside of control of the authorities. But everything happened at the mercy of brutal gangs whose members proudly called themselves “Bandidos” and “Soldados”, and who defended their drug trade and territories in terrible clashes.rnIn many favelas gangs have patrolled for years with guns and knives in the small alleys by night, butchering and killing each other.
A couple kiss each other at the bus stop on the main road leading up the hill through the favela.