It's Thanksgiving in New York City. As the sun shines over the west side of Manhattan, giant hot air balloons of cartoon characters float above. Millions of frozen faces covered in layers of clothing cheer on the traditional Macy's parade. Despite the chilly temperature, it's a beautiful day. In my parents' second floor apartment it is about 20 degrees warmer than street level. The heat and the smell of the homemade turkey my mother has been cooking in the oven for hours lingers and envelopes their cozy home. I am thankful to be sharing this holiday with my family, but can't help think about where I was three years ago today.
On November 28, 2010 I woke up early on a hot humid day in Rio de Janeiro. It was the weekend and the usual bustle of residents walking around the favelas of Complexo do Alemão were nowhere to be seen. Instead, uniformed national guard and police officers patrolled the streets in tanks and open-top jeeps and helicopters zipped through the air. As the cars stopped, dozens of men and women crawled out with semi-automatic rifles and inched their way up the narrow passages where businesses and residents had gated their doors shut. Journalists in blue and tan flak jackets followed behind, with camera lenses instead of weapons. The area surrounding the northern neighborhood had become a war zone and Rio de Janeiro's state officials were ready for battle.
The days anticipating the incursion had been tense. Gang leaders from local drug cartels were burning buses throughout the city, as a warning for officials to stand back. The nearby Vila Cruzeiro favela had already been seized by police in a violent confrontation. At least a twenty five people were killed that week and many more injured.
In Alemão, considered at the time to be one of the most dangerous places in Rio, the battle was much shorter. After a few hours of intermittent gun shots, silence fell over the favela. The state declared victory over the parallel government and planted the Civil Police's flag at the top of the mountain, moments later another officer came and placed the green Brazilian flag. The two waved side by side for a few minutes and then the first one disappeared. The scene was reminiscent of the 2003 occupation of Baghdad, when U.S. Marines draped the fallen statue of Saddam with the American flag before replacing it with the Iraqi one.
Since then, I have returned to Alemão about a dozen times. The first was in 2011, when President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated the 3.5 km cable car system. The six stations integrate distant hillside homes with public ground transportation. The main Bonsucesso stop is connected to several bus lines and the urban rail system called Supervia. The red tear-shaped gondolas have become symbols of the area and have become one of Rio's newest tourist attractions. The favela was even featured in a recent telenovela and hosted England's Prince Harry.
I am thankful that the pacification process has allowed me to get to know this community and meet so many fascinating people. I am much more comfortable walking through the area and working as a journalist without feeling watched by armed teenagers. However, some of my friends who live in Alemão have said some things have become worse under police rule.
"In the past, you could leave your doors open. There was no crime because everyone lived by the lei do tráfico (trafficker's law). If you got caught stealing, you had to answer to them," a female favela resident who asked not to be identified said. "Don't get me wrong, I am thankful for some of the changes, but it is not all it seems to be."
She chose not to elaborate on that statement. Instead, we stood silently and looked out at the sea of brick and zinc houses. A group of boys standing on the roof of a house were flying kites. The colorful papier mâché contraptions flew through the air in unison, like the procession of the Thanksgiving Day Parade.