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Rescue of Rio slums shaky on failed promise of basic services

A soccer square in bad condition is seen at the Cantagalo slum in Rio de Janeiro December 27, 2013. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
A soccer square in bad condition is seen at the Cantagalo slum in Rio de Janeiro December 27, 2013. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

By Paulo Prada

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - In the three years since hundreds of police stormed the hills that her family calls home, Caroline Oliveira has been waiting for things to get better.

True, the drug gangs that once controlled her Rio de Janeiro neighborhood are less dominant than they once were. But little else of what she was promised has come to pass.

Though she lives deep in a metropolitan area of 11 million people, her water supply often gets disrupted. Public transport is so far away she still relies on costly, unlicensed van operators. As for the promise of nearby schools and health services, she will believe it when she sees it.

"Not much has changed," says the 20-year-old mother of two, who has spent recent weeks seeking donations with neighbors to set up a community day-care center in their small corner of the Complexo do Alemão, a vast series of bare-brick shacks, open sewers and garbage heaps just north of central Rio.

"We still live as if we weren't really part of this city."

The so-called "pacification" of Rio is running into trouble. The effort to reclaim huge swaths of the city from criminals through police occupations of historically violent neighborhoods is failing to win hearts and minds.

Pacifications, authorities hoped, would raise living standards for residents, calm long-suffering nerves of neighbors and make the city so welcoming that Rio, as the country's best-known city, would showcase a prosperous, peaceful Brazil when it hosts the World Cup this year and the 2016 Olympics.

After a half-century of neglect, it seemed the government finally cared about Rio's notorious slums, or favelas. Five years into the program, police now occupy 37 major favelas, home to 1.5 million people.

Because of early success in expelling drug traffickers, the effort became a closely-watched experiment that officials in other emerging countries thought they might replicate. It also became an important gauge of whether Latin America's biggest country could fulfill the ambitious developmental goals it set for itself during a recent decade-long economic boom.

Many of the marquee projects cooked up during the good times have already fallen by the wayside, including a bullet train to São Paulo and bigger and better airport terminals, both of which were supposed to be ready by World Cup kickoff June 12.

But more galling to many is that officials in Rio have yet to deliver on far more modest promises, even sewers and basic water service for poor communities. The delayed developments - stymied by red tape, faulty budgets and other political priorities - make even the head of the state security forces fear the pacifications are being undermined.

"This is like a medical procedure in which we provide the anesthesia," says Mariano Beltrame, the state security secretary. "If surgery doesn't follow, the patient wakes up with the same problems."

Recently, the patient has been stirring.

Violence has rekindled in many favelas. Law enforcement officials and sociologists warn that poor youth and other slum dwellers, without a greater presence of the state in their neighborhoods, are more likely to turn to drug factions and other crooks eager to regain control.

In Complexo do Alemão and nearby, armed gangs killed four officers in recent ambushes. In Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo, two slums on the hills over Rio's most popular beaches, regular firefights have resumed after a four-year peace.

So unruly are some of the "pacified" slums that President Dilma Rousseff last week approved a plea from Rio's governor for federal troops, expected within days, to reinforce state police.

FETID SLUDGE, MUTE ANTENNAS

With basic security once again shaky, many residents no longer have faith in pledges about health or education. "The reality for many people here is still one of a complete lack of services," says José Martins de Oliveira, a community organizer in Rocinha, the city's densest favela and home to 70,000 people.

He and a dozen other activists met there recently to plan a campaign to demand culverts for the fetid sludge that still creeps along Rocinha's open sewers. The dry pop of gunfire, not rare these days, echoes into the room from farther up the hill.

Across the street, a public day care center is only now being finished after years of delays. Leandro Lima, a documentary film student, points to an antenna atop a nearby street light - one of dozens the state put up in 2010 to broadcast free wi-fi, network name "Rocinha Digital."

"Look for the signal," he urges. "It doesn't exist."

Like shanty towns elsewhere, Rio's favelas emerged as a result of inequality and erratic development.

Job-seeking migrants from rural areas, especially Brazil's historically poor northeast, flocked to the city during the last century and began squatting on vacant hillsides in prosperous districts. There, demand for workers was greatest and few other options existed in a city lodged between the Atlantic Ocean, marshy lagoons and steep outcroppings.

Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, last year called favelas an organic "solution" for urban life. He said their dense and maze-like architecture, the result of willy-nilly development as squatters built where they could, offer lessons for dense populations elsewhere.

Urban planners, though, find fault with favelas as they exist - especially the health and safety risks posed by untreated waste, spliced power cables and unregulated construction. "Sure, they're a solution for tight space, but you cannot ignore the problems that occur," says Luiz Carlos Toledo, a Rio architect who won a state contract in 2005 to propose a "master plan" for Rocinha.

The drive to improve the favelas began during the second half of the last decade, when Brazil's boom coincided with a sea change in Rio politics. For the first time in decades, the city and state administrations allied with the federal government.

The state, in charge of security, in late 2008 began the pacifications. Coupled with the boom, the police push gave Rio a sheen not seen since the days of bossa nova and back-to-back World Cup titles a half-century ago.

But the euphoria led to over-confidence.

"A lot of undeliverable promises were made," says Eduarda La Rocque, president of a municipal agency that collects data and evaluates social needs in favelas. "Investments are being made, but not at the pace many expected."

Skeptics within the favelas believe that the little accomplished so far is just for show, that the pacifications are an illusion that will vanish after the Olympics.

NO ORDERLY CITY GRID

A big problem is bureaucracy.

Different agencies and levels of government are responsible for different aspects of development. While the state is in charge of security and water, for instance, the city handles schools and road transportation. Much of the funding for infrastructure, meanwhile, comes from federal agencies.

And planning is difficult in areas that once didn't exist for official purposes.

Seemingly simple tasks, like garbage collection, are tough in unknown, unmapped alleyways. Favelas, with their jerry-built homes and tangles of improvised wiring, aren't virgin terrain where officials can just build an orderly new city grid.

That means many projects will still take years.

Then there are unforeseen difficulties.

In Rocinha, Toledo's master plan envisioned a series of rail cars to shuttle residents up and down hills. The only such attempt, up a slope called Roupa Suja, or dirty clothes, remains little more than a litter-strewn stretch of unfinished concrete.

"The topography in these places turned out to be far more difficult than initially thought," says Ruth Jurberg, an architect who coordinates the state's use of federal infrastructure funds.

Still, she says, the projects will continue with additional funding. Another $1.3 billion worth of federal infrastructure investments are pending.

Some high-profile developments have in fact been delivered.

Since 2008, with the help of the federal funds, the state government spent about $360 million on new projects in the Complexo do Alemão, most visibly a shiny red cable car line spanning 2 miles and six hilltops.

In Rocinha, the state spent more than $110 million on developments including a community sports facility, a health clinic and a 144-unit apartment complex to house residents whose homes were demolished because their cramped and disordered street was a locus for tuberculosis.

But feelings are mixed about even those.

Residents of the housing complex, for example, complain about leaks. Pumps and plumbing are so weak that apartments at times are without water.

"This all looks nice, but it's like they did the minimum necessary and then forgot about us," Rui Carrijo, a 49-year-old school bus driver who crams furniture and boxes on one side of his bedroom to keep them away from a leaky wall.

Although the cable car is popular with tourists and others eager for a birds-eye view of neighborhoods once off-limits, it prompts a shrug among many locals in the Complexo do Alemão.

They say the gondolas, while convenient for trips into and out of the area, are useless for navigating the difficult terrain below. Shopkeepers say the cable car saps foot traffic.

Now, the state wants to build one over Rocinha.

Flyers posted in the favela denounce the "telefante," a hybrid term merging the Portuguese for cable car and white elephant. "We need sewers, we need schools, not something for tourists," says Flavio Mendes, a 37-year-old library worker.

In the Complexo do Alemão, the gritty streets beneath the gondolas contrast with the spectacle overhead.

Rubble from station construction remains heaped nearly three years after the cable car went into service. A police station next to one of the stops bears scars from a recent shootout.

Near the last station, Patricia Pinheiro, a 24-year-old mother of three, complains she spent the recent summer hitching rides to fill a 20-liter jug at a tap 10 minutes away. Though authorities built a cistern to augment the flow from the state water supply, service still fails, in part because eager neighbors broke part of the tank trying to tap it.

"Can it be so hard to fix?" she asks. "Every neighborhood around us has water."

Farther into the favela, Oliveira, the aspiring day-care worker, sits with her 59-year-old grandmother, Bemvinda, who supports the family with a widow's pension of $380 a month.

Their corner of the community, a 20 minute walk over a dusty hill from most shops and over another hill still from the closest cable car, is poor even by favela standards. A stream of raw waste flows from nearby shacks along the base of hers.

"I came here looking for a better life," says Bemvinda, recalling her move from a distant state nearly three decades ago. "I never actually found it."

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Martin Howell)

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