Rio’s attraction: gangsters and drugs

Tom Phillips

Tourists explore favelas, which are home to Brazil’s poorest citizens.

RIO DE JANEIRO: You could be forgiven for imagining that a holiday in Rio de Janeiro involved stretching out on Ipanema Beach, trekking up the Sugar Loaf Mountain or attempting to dance the samba after a bellyful of caipirinha.

This week, however, another attraction was added to the list: posing for photos alongside teenage drug traffickers clutching Russian machine guns and bags of Bolivian cocaine.

Rio’s tourist police are investigating after a Brazilian reporter went “undercover” on one of the city’s shantytown or favela tours. He claimed to have witnessed the tour guide introducing gringos to a member of the drug faction that controls Rio’s largest shantytown, Rocinha, and then watched as they posed for photos.

There are around 600 redbrick favelas in Rio, home to around a million of its poorest people. The slums are considered no-go zones by most Brazilians. Foreigners, however, have always shown more interest in Rio’s impoverished underbelly. Since the 1980s, when guidebooks suggested cunning ways to sneak a peek at the favelas without actually going in, “poorism” has been a growing trend. Within a few years, tour companies began offering visitors the chance to talk to locals, visit social projects and buy art from “authentic” Brazilians.

Today a new, less savoury, generation of “poor guides” has sprung up.

For around $60, they offer to transport the thrill-seeking foreigner into a real-life version of “City of God”, the acclaimed film about Rio’s gang culture.

Some years ago, I was approached by a dishevelled-looking North American, who described himself as an “alternative tour guide.” He claimed he was taking a young English couple to meet some gangsters. Would I like to come? The next day, we were led up a steep concrete staircase towards the top of a shantytown in Copacabana.

Halfway up, we stopped to chat with a pair of traffickers and for the guide to fill his nostrils with cocaine. I asked the guide if he didn’t think the tours, which included the opportunity to pose for photos holding the traffickers’ weapons, a tad over the top. He shook his head wildly, a thick white ring now etched around his nostril.

It was important, he pontificated, for tourists to know the “real Rio.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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