RIO DE JANEIRO // The noise of the young men's laughter and shouting competed with the loud beat of Brazilian rap music. Stacked next to them were their guns and the men were clearly intoxicated, but shoppers blithely ignored them as they picked up provisions in the market around them. Rocinha, the biggest and most prosperous of Rio de Janeiro's 800 favelas, or slums, is now controlled by the Amigos Dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) drug gang. But there is less violence than in other favelas, where rival drug gangs fight gun battles for control, often using sophisticated weaponry that rivals the police's arsenal.
Rogerio Rodrigues, who has lived in Rocinha since he was born there 29 years ago, said: "There's no police here but there are rules to live here. You cannot steal and a drug dealer cannot harm a resident. "When I was growing up, you would see a lot of dead bodies in the streets. I hate guns and I don't get used to it. You see 14 or 17-year-old kids really high with guns and I always pray." Over the years, Brazil has made some attempts to improve life in the favelas, such as creating links to electricity and water, but social and security programmes appear to be picking up pace as the country prepares to host the football World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016.
The residents of Rocinha hope the government will this time act on all its promises. Although life is better there than in many other favelas and it even has some banks and estate agents trading in the neighbourhood's breeze-block buildings, there are vast piles of stinking waste on the streets that assail the senses. Meanwhile, many children do not attend school and are easily diverted into drug dealing.
The police are supposed to permanently occupy Rocinha later this year under a "pacification" programme, aimed at wresting control from the gangs but without expecting to eradicate drug dealing completely. In the meantime, raids by heavily armed police occur regularly. A raid in March killed seven people, who were said to be part of the 300-member Amigos Dos Amigos gang that controls Rocinha's 85,000 people. The gang is led by Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, or Nem as he is nicknamed. He once faked his own death certificate to evade arrest.
Favelas first sprang up about 100 years ago, created by returning soldiers and the rural poor. Today, they exist cheek-by-jowl with Rio's glitzy neighbourhoods, to which they provide maids and labourers as well as the musicians and dancers for the world-famous carnival. Rocinha hugs the steep hills overlooking Sao Conrado, an exclusive beach resort with an Intercontinental Hotel and where apartments can cost up to 5 million reais (Dh10.4m). By contrast, an apartment in Rocinha can be rented for about 400 reais a month.
Mr Rodgrigues' family background echoes many of the one million residents who live in the favelas of Rio, a city where some six million people live altogether. "My Dad came here about 40 years ago from the north-east and he was a waiter. Once he found a room, he sent for my mother, who was only 16 but already had three children," he said. The family eventually grew to eight children and he now lives with several of his siblings - six people sharing a five-room house including kitchen and bathroom.
He thanked his parents for avoiding involvement with drug gangs. "The drug dealers are always trying to seduce you with cool cars and clothes," he said. "But my Mum and Dad would say work is good, study is good even though my Dad could barely read and my Mum couldn't read at all." He left school at 11 and got his first job working overnight in a car park. But as a teenager, he started attending English and other classes at the Two Brothers Foundation, an educational non-governmental organisation which he now helps to run while he continues his studies.
He and Daniel de Oliveira, the foundation's director, also 29, have started Favela Architectours, which takes visitors on a walking tour through Rocinha and that aims to go beyond voyeuristic "favela tourism". They plan to train some of the children now attending classes at the foundation to eventually act as guides. The men's hope is to attend university to study social work. Many of the children suffer from abuse and a psychologist visits them at the foundation twice a week. Young teenage pregnancy is common and many of the parents are drug dealers themselves.
"For the first time, I now see the government really starting to do something for us in the favelas," said Mr de Oliveira. "I shall wait to see what happens but I have hope for the future." @Email:email@example.com