After Rio Olympics, cable car above slums becomes ride to nowhere
A cable car built over one of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent favelas as a symbol of hope stands idle today, a ride to nowhere in a city whose recent Olympic glory has never seemed more distant.
The ski resort-style, multimillion-dollar gondolas were hailed worldwide when they first glided over Rio de Janeiro’s gang-infested Complexo do Alemao favela in 2011.
In the build-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics, the network of cables and six hilltop terminals was meant to show that Alemao was about more than battles between drug gangs and police.
But today the shiny facilities are closed—and the guns are getting louder.
At one abandoned terminal named Alemao, a stray dog wanders lazily past the vacant hall. Bullet holes mark the walls of the adjacent police station. A bullet casing lies on the street.
Similar scenes are repeated around the rest of the system, which was taken offline last September, just weeks after the Olympics ended. Officials cited unexpected damage requiring major maintenance.
But they have yet to say when this will happen, beyond “in the second half” of this year. With Rio state nearly bankrupt, crime soaring and public servants not being paid on time, local residents are skeptical.
“I don’t believe it (will restart), not with the crisis,” said Sonia Paulo, 34, who works as a maid.
Pretty much the only remaining attraction is the extraordinary view from the six terminals. The cables link one vertiginous hilltop to another across the huge, working class neighborhood of jumbled alleys and crudely built brick houses. From that height, the favela resembles a bright collage of tiny squares.
But don’t climb the terminal for an even better look, warned Lieutenant Leonardo Violante, manning the bullet-scarred police station: “The bandits will see you and start shooting.”
Brought down to earth
When the favela cable car opened, some criticized the 210 million reais ($64 million today) price tag, saying the money should instead fund sewage systems, schools and other basic services for the impoverished people below.
But the rides, spanning 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers), became one of Rio’s top tourist destinations.
The system was also hugely popular with favela residents who could now get around without negotiating Alemao’s tortuously steep, narrow streets. Some 9,000 people were reported to ride daily.
“It changed a lot for us,” said Bruna Teodoro, 26, who used to work in a market and now, like more than 13 percent of Brazilians, is unemployed. Her commute changed from at least half an hour to five minutes. “We really miss it.”
What Brazilians call the “teleferico” was not only transport. Each terminal building became a buzzing community hub, housing medical, postal and social services, and in one case a library.
“They had social services and community projects,” said arts producer Nathalia Menezes, 29, who lives right next to the Alemao terminal. “Theater, fashion—there were a lot of great things.”
The cable car network was also closely integrated with a system of local policing called Pacification Police Units or UPP in Portuguese. The UPP idea was just as revolutionary as the cable cars.
Instead of police fighting narco-gangs on sporadic, large-scale raids, officers would live and patrol inside the community, winning locals’ trust and displacing the traffickers. Put that with the cable cars and the favela would change forever. So went the plan.
“The goal of the project was to take over the traffickers’ space,” Violante, 28, said outside his UPP. “Up here is right where the drug traffickers used to execute people.”
But now it’s the heavily armed officers inside the UPPs, not the gangsters outside, who are marginalized.
Officers don’t go outside without their pistols or automatic rifles and they wouldn’t dare go even a short distance alone.
Even if they do go in force, the likelihood is they’ll get into a firefight. Spraying high velocity bullets around the tightly packed neighborhood is hardly a way to win friends.
“We’ve had to cut back on the patrols a lot because of the problem of stray bullets,” the lieutenant said. “The idea was to work with the community but for us to talk with residents means getting into shootouts. It’s a bit harder than we thought.” JB
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