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Pedro and Denise Magalhaes with their two children. (Doug Saunders/The Globe and Mail)
Pedro and Denise Magalhaes with their two children. (Doug Saunders/The Globe and Mail)


Mud floor to middle class Add to ...

Each weekday morning, Pedro and Denise Magalhaes wake in their whitewashed bungalow on the southern outskirts of Sao Paulo, make a quick espresso, check the headlines on the web, drag their two teenagers away from their TVs and computers and usher them off to school, and open the front gate to begin their drive to work. As they back their Peugeot sedans into the street, Pedro glances across the road to a spot he has spent his entire life watching: a small park in the middle of their boulevard, one of the few scraps of green in this extremely dense neighbourhood. These days it is occupied only by a lone drunk, an old school friend of Pedro's who fell on hard times and sleeps on one of its benches.

Two decades earlier, when Pedro attended the secondary school at the top of the street, he would pass this park each Monday morning and frequently see that at least one bullet-punctured corpse had been dumped there, very often the bodies of his schoolmates, sometimes one of his friends. For a number of years this was almost a weekly occurrence.

Murder, for everyone living here, was a staple of daily life, and horrific poverty and isolation its backdrop. In 1996 Jardim Angela became known as the most violent community on earth. This was the wider world's confirmation of something that had been evident to residents of this favela for years.

In 1976 it was empty parkland with a few migrants' shacks strung along its snakelike main street. By the end of the century, this hilly strip of land had a population exceeding 250,000 and an astonishing 309 homicides per year. Almost all the victims were teenagers, caught up in local gang struggles. Its murder rate, which was the highest in Brazil through the 1990s and peaked at 123 per 100,000, made it more deadly than most war zones. Some of the killings were carried out by warring teenage gangs. Others were conducted by the military police, who staged raids every few months, shooting up parties, capturing and torturing teenagers, and conducting clandestine assassinations. There were also private-sector death squads, made up of current and former police hired by local businessmen to kill troublesome gang members.

Property values were below zero: the neighbourhood was a degraded pile of shacks, almost uninhabitable after most shops and services moved out and crime became the main business. Drug abuse and alcoholism were default modes of coping, and the infant-mortality rate was one of the highest in the country. Jardim Angela was synonymous with dangerous slum life.

Pedro Magalhaes was caught in its centre, in his most vulnerable years, with a dead father, an impoverished family, a pregnant teenage girlfriend and no useful education. It seemed certain that he would become one of the lost arrivals.

Pedro was born in 1971, the youngest son of a farming family in the poor north of the inland Minas Gerais state, just as Brazil's great migration was approaching its peak. In 1976, his family abandoned the village and took advantage of the father's seasonal-migration links to Sao Paulo to participate in a land invasion on the city's far southern boundary. It was a risky move. The land was near the edge of one of two lakes that provide most of Sao Paulo's drinking water, and the city had a history of violently evicting squatter communities from water-supply areas. But Brazil's military dictatorship was under stress and had few resources to fight urban battles.

The sheer mass of people converging on the city made a sustained resistance unlikely.

Pedro's family cobbled together a wood hut, pressed tightly against its neighbours, on the lower slope of the favela's main hill, on far less desirable land than their current residence. Although his family's wood shack would be bulldozed by Sao Paulo authorities more than once in the land battles of the 1970s, they were able to stay, penned in by a city that would neither completely evict them nor formalize their ownership, leaving them in a limbo with neither services nor official citizenship.

In its earliest years, there was a mood of optimism in Jardim Angela. It was far better than the village, and there was work. "It was quite a deserted place then," Pedro told me. "Lots of empty spaces, big areas for kids to run around." And jobs for the adults, in the local metalworking industry and a big bicycle plant. There was pirated electricity, but no water, sewage, paved streets, bus service or any other connections to the urban surroundings, and the city did not recognize ownership of the favela huts.

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