Skip to main content

For five years, Rio de Janeiro was Stephanie Nolen’s home base as she showed Globe readers the lives and struggles of Latin America. Now, as she moves the bureau to Mexico, she looks back at the troubled nation she leaves behind

Open this photo in gallery:

Maria de Barros Araujo, a resident of the Brazilian favela of Rocinha, was one of the first people in Brazil that Stephanie Nolen got to know as The Globe and Mail's Latin America correspondent there.Francisco Proner/Farpa/The Globe and Mail

Maria de Barros Araujo was late, and I was scared. She had told me to meet her when she got off work, and I was there, in the courtyard outside her small apartment, just after 5 o’clock. But Ms. Araujo didn’t turn up, and it got steadily darker, and I sat on a sharp slab of cement outside her door with my shoulders bunched, certain that at any moment I’d hear gunfire and wondering how I was going to get out of there, back down the hill to relative safety.

Ms. Araujo was one of the first people I got to know in Brazil, five years ago. I met her almost by accident, when I was wandering around the hillside favela called Rocinha. I was there to write a first story from Brazil, as a correspondent newly arrived from India. I had been tasked by my editors to explain why The Globe and Mail was opening a bureau in Rio de Janeiro, why the stories from this city were ones we believed readers needed to hear. I was chatting to people at a residents’ association about all the ways life in the favela had improved in recent years when someone suggested I see if Maria was home.

She was, and she let me in, and she told her story with the generosity that so many Brazilians would show me over the course of my time here. Ms. Araujo was 40, then, and that story was full of difficult details – it reduced her to tears in places – but she was sunnily cheerful, nonetheless, possessed of a deep-rooted conviction that things were getting better, that life was going to bring her good things in the years to come. I wrote about her, in that first story, and I thought about her often afterward, because the ways in which Ms. Araujo’s life had changed were emblematic of the positive changes happening here amid so much else that was terrible and even tragic.

And so when the time came for me to write about leaving Brazil, I sent Ms. Araujo a WhatsApp message and asked if I could come by for another chat. We had kept in touch only sporadically over the years, but I knew how much had gone wrong in her community since we first met, how much harder life had become for people such as her. She felt like a bellwether, of sorts: How her family was doing might tell me whether my own sense of gloom was justified. She invited me to come by, and her reply was full of smiley, kissy emojis, but my stomach knotted as we made the plan, as I contemplated what might be involved in dropping by to see her this time.

Rio’s favelas began to be built 130 years ago, by demobilized soldiers and freed slaves and migrants who could not afford land on the flat ground below. The state never extended basic services – although one in five people in Rio lives in a favela – and for decades, these communities were ruled by gangsters and later by drug-traffickers, who controlled the entrances and provided pirate utilities, and vigilante justice. Police, when they came at all, came to kill.

But when first I visited Rocinha, in 2013, all that had recently changed: An innovative public-security program that combined social programs, infrastructure investment and community policing had reclaimed the territory from the gangs. I wandered up and down the twisting, narrow streets of the favela, past shopkeepers who were putting in new display cases, small lanchonetes where waiters were setting tables out on the crumbly sidewalk – and cops, who carried light weapons and made conversation with people who passed – and I didn’t think much about safety. I wrote about transformation, and a neighbourhood that “buzzed with possibility.”

A few weeks ago, on my way to meet Ms. Araujo, I saw armoured personnel carriers parked across the favela entrance, and, on my way up the hill, soldiers with masked faces, slowly waving the ends of their guns back and forth, pointed at the people in the streets.

The community officers had been replaced by an elite squad of military police. But they didn’t make me feel safe: They were trigger-happy and lawless and they had killed 19 people in Rocinha so far this year. They were there to confront the gangsters who had reclaimed the territory – and at any moment, I knew, one of their sustained exchanges of gunfire (carried out with no regard for the 170,000 people who lived crammed on the hillside) could break out again. The shooting happens at all hours, but with the approach of dusk, I had to surrender even the illusion that I could easily get away.

Open this photo in gallery:

When Ms. Nolen first met Ms. Araujo, she had just taken ownership of a two-bedroom apartment as part of a federal government housing program.Francisco Proner/Farpa/The Globe and Mail

Just as I was preparing to give up and leave, Ms. Araujo hurried up the hill, huffing for breath and complaining about her commute. She works as one of two full-time maids for a couple and their two adult sons, who share a luxury beachfront apartment. Their neighbourhood is, theoretically, served by one of the new transportation projects Rio’s city government installed for the 2016 Summer Olympics. But like much else built for the Games, it stopped functioning within weeks of the snuffing of the Olympic torch. Ms. Araujo had taken three packed buses to travel the 14 kilometres home, and it was dark now, just as it had been dark when she had left early that morning, to arrive in time to make her employers their breakfast.

We hugged, and she peppered me with the hail of compliments that accompany a typical Brazilian greeting, and then we hurried inside. Ms. Araujo tugged the curtains closed, telling me the story of a neighbour who was shot looking out her window a few weeks before – as if the thin, flowered cotton might somehow shield us.

When we met in 2013, she had just moved into this tiny two-bedroom flat, which was awarded to her as part of a federal government housing scheme for the poor. She was bursting with pride, back then, full of plans on how she would improve it. She told me, that first day, about how she left an impoverished village in the northeast as a teenager, years before, and came to Rio seeking work with no more than a few years of grade-school education; how she fell in with a man who beat her and then abandoned her when she got pregnant; how she and her baby slept on pieces of cardboard in the streets of Rocinha, that she tried to keep him tucked away from the rain that ran off the roofs and the sewage that streamed down the alleys.

And then a free daycare opened up, and she took her son, and she got a cleaning job there; eventually, she took a free government training program in early childhood education and became a daycare worker. She got a better boyfriend, and then got off the street, and had two more children, but then the boyfriend turned out to be less good. But she managed to keep a tin roof overhead, in part with the help of a cash grant from government ($70 a month) that helped her keep the kids fed and in school, and then she got the house. It was a dark story with an unexpected happy twist, and Ms. Araujo giggled as she told it, and clasped her plump hands together for emphasis.

Open this photo in gallery:

Five years ago, the hillside favela of Rocinha held out hope that an innovative public security program would challenge the influence of gangs. The approach brought social programs and community policing to the area.Francisco Proner/Farpa/The Globe and Mail

Open this photo in gallery:

A civilian police car sits in the background on a Rocinha street. Community policing in the favela has largely given way to a heavily armed military presence.Francisco Ramos/The Globe and Mail

Open this photo in gallery:

Children play on a motorcycle in Vila Verde, a neighbourhood of Rocinha.Francisco Proner/Farpa/The Globe and Mail

It was stories such as hers that had drawn me to Brazil. The whole world was looking at the country with new interest: powered by the commodity boom, Brazil had recently overtaken Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy, and it was flexing new diplomatic muscle. It had won the hosting rights for the 2014 World Cup, and the Summer Olympics. And for me, there was a particular attraction: I came to Brazil after 12 years of reporting in sub-Sarahan Africa and South Asia, where I wrote dozens of stories about projects that were designed to end poverty and reduce inequality. There were some successes – but in India, in particular, there were a great many failures.

This country had moved 34 million people out of poverty in a decade, the biggest such shift in modern history. It had posted record economic growth, yet government data showed that the gap between the rich and poor had shrunk – the first time that ever happened here. No one was critically short of food any more, so Brazil was removed from the World Hunger Index – and academics came from all over the world to study its conditional cash grant program that was helping push people, including Ms. Araujo, above the poverty line. All of this made for rich reporting territory, and I dove in.

Had I known then what I do now, had I known more about which questions to ask, and of whom to ask them, I might have felt less cheerful.

In hindsight, the underpinnings of Brazil’s bold new future were already showing deep cracks, back then.

In February of 2014, I wrote a first article about a sprawling graft scheme, introducing Globe readers to Lava Jato – “car wash” in Portuguese, the police code name of the criminal investigation that would come to be the dominant story of my time in Brazil. (It would result in convictions for politicians at every level of government, including former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; president Dilma Rousseff also became a casualty, when she was pushed from office in 2016 by lawmakers motivated in large part by anger that she had not done more to shut down the probe that slowly but relentlessly came after them.)

Open this photo in gallery:

April 18, 2016: Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks about impeachment proceedings against her at a news conference at the presidential palace in Brasilia.The Associated Press

The economy began to contract in early 2015, hurt by a collapse in commodity prices and mismanagement by the Rousseff government, descending into what would become Brazil’s worst recession in more than a century. GDP fell 3.8 per cent that year, beginning an erosion of the social gains of the decade before. Much of the success in reducing poverty in Brazil was due to a sharp rise in the minimum wage (more than 100 per cent in seven years) and expansion in the manufacturing and service sectors – but now those areas began layoffs, and by the time the Olympics came to town, the unemployment rate was more than 12 per cent. The economic decline fed the political uncertainty, and Ms. Rousseff’s opponents used the grim economic news to rally support against her until she was impeached in October, 2016. Just to round out that plague season, there was Zika – a once-mild virus that suddenly wrought devastation on fetal brains – and I travelled through Brazil’s northeast tracking its spread in interviews with shattered young mothers.

Through all of this, Rio was hit particularly hard. The state of Rio had two major disadvantages: First, it drew half its budget from royalties earned from vast oil fields off the northern coast of the state. And second, it was cursed with a particularly venal class of rulers, even by Brazilian standards: You may recall, by way of example, an iconic photo of celebrating leaders, from the ceremony in Copenhagen when Rio was awarded the Summer Games by the International Olympic Committee? Every single one of the men in that photo – the president, Mr. da Silva, and the mayor of Rio, the governor of the state and all the others – is either now in jail, or facing corruption charges. In the years before the crash, they looted state coffers so thoroughly that when oil prices collapsed, there was nothing left.

Open this photo in gallery:

Rocinha and other parts of Rio began to see rapid decline in their public hospitals and schools in 2016, as the public security program that made them feel safer was abandoned.Francisco Proner/Farpa/The Globe and Mail

Rio somehow managed to pull off a fine World Cup and a functional Olympics – but no sooner had the last tourists got on the plane than things began to fall spectacularly apart. Schools were shuttered, when the state stopped paying teachers and they eventually gave up going to work. Public hospitals turned away people seeking even essentials such as oxygen. And the public-security program – pacificacao – that was responsible for the atmosphere of hope and inclusion when I first met Maria Araujo was totally abandoned. First the social investments stopped, then police stopped getting fuel for their cars, and then they stopped getting paid. It took just weeks for the gangs who had been there in the shadows to step boldly out and reclaim the territory.

The deterioration could be felt all over Rio: There were shootings in the middle of the business district, shootings on the buses, shootings in the fanciest grocery store in town. But as always, the violence was worst in the favelas and other poor communities. Rio was averaging 15 shootings a day by the start of this year. In February, Michel Temer, the smug vice-president who slid into Ms. Rousseff’s former job, issued an extra-constitutional decree to put the military in charge security in the city. It was a nakedly political move – designed to provide a highly visible intervention that would placate middle-class voters, his base – without touching any of the causes of the violence. There was no discussion about reviving the pacificacao program, of doubling down on investment in job training and education and service provision in the favelas.

The shooting didn’t stop, and I was viscerally aware of just how much of it there was. I lived in a leafy, upper-middle-class neighbourhood. But it’s a characteristic of Rio’s geography and a legacy of its history that the city’s richest and poorest, safest and most violent, neighbourhoods are often cheek by jowl. Wealth buys only a limited amount of insulation here. In September, 2017, there was a putsch against the gang boss who ruled Rocinha and a turf war broke out that resulted in raging gun battles up and down the hill that have simmered ever since. The rattle of automatic gunfire echoes out over the beachfront apartments – and spills over into the streets around the favela.

Open this photo in gallery:

Officers from the BOPE, the brutal military police, patrol in Rocinha.Francisco Proner/Farpa/The Globe and Mail

My children attended Rio’s American School, which is located in a wealthy neighbourhood called Alta Gavea – about 10 metres from a main entrance to the favela. The school has bulletproof windows and heavy metal security gates – and a policy of cancelling recess and gym classes on the sports fields whenever there is shooting over the road. But my kids were coming home to report that math class had been drowned out by echoes of gunfire. I realized one day that my 11-year-old could distinguish between the sound of firecrackers, small-arms fire and assault weapons. My older child was always drawn and anxious on those days; my younger one would shrug and say, “Today was a normal day,” and I didn’t know what was worse.

My daughter had adapted – to a degree that made me alarmed – but one does, somehow. I downloaded a pair of apps, so that I could check where there was shooting, before I crossed the city. We biked less, hiked less, didn’t stay down in the old port area – the birthplace of samba – to dance until the predawn hours any more. I traded flurries of WhatsApp messages with friends and other parents from the school – where were there problems, where was the BOPE (the brutal military police), was it safe to go to the park? I was far less vulnerable than Ms. Araujo and her children, who had no high walls to hide behind in Rocinha, who had no choice but to venture out each morning, no matter what the apps showed, in order to hold onto precious jobs. But the anxiety – and the despair over the total lack of discussion of a solution – began to corrode my love for Rio, and made it harder to focus on the positive things that were still happening here.

There were some: Lava Jato, that graft probe that began as a minor money-laundering investigation, had ballooned to the biggest corruption case in the world, with prosecutors investigating more than $2-billion in bribes paid to politicians and oil company executives. Politicians from every party had gone to jail – including the men who had jockeyed to oust Ms. Rousseff in order to save their skins. The tawdry inner workings of the system of collusion between business and politicians that fuelled the country’s politics for centuries had been laid bare. There was a watershed moment earlier this year when Mr. da Silva was convicted of accepting renovations on a condo in exchange for helping a giant construction firm win government contracts: The nation watched transfixed as Brazil’s most popular politician was led into a prison by police.

Open this photo in gallery:

April 7, 2018: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, middle right, the former president of Brazil, arrives at the federal police headquarters in the city of Curitiba to begin serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.HEULER ANDREY/Getty Images

The convictions were a testament to the growing strength and independence of the country’s judicial institutions. And yet it was hard to feel too positive about proof the entire system was rotten. Brazilians took in the apparently never-ending series of revelations about the pillaging of the state funds that were meant to pay their teachers and stock their emergency rooms – by governors and senators who kept mountains of cash and gold lying around their lavish homes – and they often expressed a sort of resigned, angry despair, coupled with a fatalistic conviction the system would never change.

Those were feelings I could totally understand, but sometimes I would push back a bit, pointing out that many of the gains Brazil made in the best years – a surge in vaccination coverage of children, a rise in adult literacy, a healthy increase in the number of years kids stayed in school, a jump in the number of Afro-descendants who went to college – were not lost, despite the recession, despite the scandals and disillusionment with Mr. da Silva. To me, the most significant shift of the previous 15 years was the way that some of the iron hold that Brazil’s elite had had on power and wealth and control had begun to slip – Mr. da Silva wanted to make poor Brazilians “citizens,” and as their spending power grew, and with it their demands, they had changed a 500-year-old power dynamic.

And I would point to the historic decline in the level of inequality – that, I would say, was something that no amount of corruption could take away. Then, last December, I learned that even this was not what it seemed. While poverty fell in the boom years, no question, economists crunching newly released tax data discovered that inequality did not – in fact, concentration of income in the hands of the richest Brazilians actually increased. Instead of offering a salutary lesson in how to reduce inequality, I wrote then, Brazil turned out to be an illustration in just how devilishly difficult that is. The poor got a bit of the boom – but the wealthiest 10 per cent of Brazilians received the benefit of 61 per cent of economic growth. Last year, the Temer government attempted to slash its way out of the recession by cutting social programs, which disproportionately hurt the poor; at least four million people have fallen back below the poverty line. Brazil’s new social mobility proved to have been limited, and fragile.

The development nerd in me was fascinated by this story, but the part of me that had come to love Brazil was further deflated. Then came the brutal assassination of Marielle Franco, the charismatic black, queer city councillor from Rio who embodied all the changes I admired here. The night after she was killed – shot five times in her car after a meeting with female Afro-Brazilian entrepreneurs – tens of thousands of angry, grieving people took to the streets in Rio. The march was largely silent, broken only by the occasional shout of “Marielle presente!”, her trademark slogan, her way of saying she was showing up for the poor, for the favelados, for the victims of violence. It was haunting, and I had rarely sensed such collective despair.

Open this photo in gallery:

March 15, 2018: After city councillor Marielle Franco was assassinated in Rio in March, tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets, some carrying banners reading 'Marielle Lives.'RICARDO MORAES/Reuters

From covering Ms. Franco’s (still unsolved) murder, I turned to reporting on the presidential election; the first round of voting is Oct. 7. There was nothing to feel positive about here, either: Mr. da Silva was the front runner in polls – campaigning from his jail cell – until a month before the vote, when courts ruled he could not stand. It was a harsh comment on Brazilian politics that the most popular candidate was a convicted criminal. But the second-place candidate – who now leads the polls – is if anything more alarming: Jair Bolsonaro is a far-right career politician who openly praises Brazil’s military dictatorship, and torture; who has repeatedly been investigated for hate speech for routine comments he makes about Indigenous people, Afro-Brazilians and queer people; who declared a fellow member of Congress “too ugly to rape.” But he is the rare political figure who has not faced corruption charges, which wins him the support of some Brazilians, and he champions looser gun laws and giving the police the right to shoot to kill – it’s a message that has proved ironically popular with people exhausted by the surge in violent crime, although police do plenty of killing already and rarely face consequences. Even more dispiriting than the presidential candidates is the roster of people running for other offices: Even as Lava Jato racked up convictions, Brazil’s political elite continued to demonstrate their perceived untouchability: 79 per cent of members of the lower house of Congress, for example, are running for re-election, even though just 81 of the 513 members are not being investigated or charged in a corruption probe.

Open this photo in gallery:

Rocinha residents collect items to reuse from a dumpster.Francisco Proner/Farpa/The Globe and Mail

On my hike up to Ms. Araujo’s house a few weeks ago, I passed spray-painted graffiti – Quem matou Marielle? Who killed Marielle? – and I passed slogans championing Lula’s innocence. The entrance to the complex courtyard was nearly sealed off with mounds of uncollected trash; the sewage still streamed down through open gutters.

Inside Ms. Araujo’s house, I saw she had made some of the renovations she was plotting five years before – putting in sleek white kitchen cabinets and a tile floor – but the couch was gone, and instead we sat on rickety plastic stools. She told me how she had left the crèche in frustration a year after I met her because the salaries started coming months late or not at all; the municipal government was, of course, broke. She thought she would find another job, but domestic work was all she could get. She hated picking up after the spoiled twentysomething children of the family that hired her – “It’s so humiliating, this work, but I needed a salary.” She earns $375 a month, never enough to cover the bills, and she’s looking for a weekend cleaning job. Her elder son helps – he is a water polo prodigy, a sport he learned at the new recreation complex built in Rocinha at the start of pacificacao, and the club he plays with gave him an internship that pays a bit. She lost her cash grant, and her son lost a bursary that was helping him study accounting, in the Temer government cuts. “People don’t get opportunities today like we did back then,” she said, referring to the Lula years.

And on top of all of this, of course, is the violence. “We are in the crossfire all day long.” Lots of her neighbours are fleeing, abandoning their houses on what is comparatively valuable Rio real estate, but she doesn’t see the point. “Where can you go that it’s better?” She pushes her younger son, who is 14, to study so he can try to do some sort of course after high school, but he is convinced that only a career as a pro footballer will get him out of Rocinha. At least, she said, she has the house.

When she had caught me up on the news, I got out an old notebook, the first I filled in Brazil, and I asked Ms. Araujo if I could read her back some of the things she said five years before.

“You told me then, ‘We saw a lot of things that we wouldn’t want to see again. I think things are going to keep getting better. I believe it. I didn’t have anything – now I have a TV, a fridge, a bed when I used to sleep on the ground – I think things are getting better.’”

She was quiet for a long time when I finished reading.

“I was really an optimist, back then,” she said softly.

Before she let me out her door that night, Ms. Araujo poked her head into the courtyard, listening for any sign of trouble. She hugged me hard, told me God would be with me, and that I’d be just fine, once I got out.

Stephanie Nolen has been The Globe and Mail’s Latin America bureau chief since 2013, from a base in Rio de Janeiro. This month, the Globe moves the bureau to Mexico City. Ms. Nolen will continue to cover the region.

Open this photo in gallery:

Rocinha residents watch a Brazil game during the World Cup.FRANCISCO PRONER/FARPA/The Globe and Mail

Stephanie Nolen’s Brazil: More from our archives

Open this photo in gallery:

Brazil’s colour bind: How one of the world's most diverse countries is just starting to talk about race

How Brazil's big experiment in policing failed to make Rio safer for the Olympics

The lost ones: Inside Brazil's Indigenous suicide crisis

Brazil's land war between Indigenous people and farmers: 'We just need to be home'

In Brazil's crooked political game, is anybody playing fair? A search for an honest political player

Highway of riches, road to ruin: Inside the Amazon's deforestation crisis