clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Filed under:

“It’s like a war zone”: how the Olympics nearly destroyed a Rio neighborhood

In January, I spent a month in Rio de Janeiro exploring the city as it prepared for the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics have long served as an opportunity for cities to grow, develop undeveloped land, improve public transportation, and prove themselves on an international platform. Rio de Janeiro is no different.

The Olympics have prompted monumental changes in the city – but not all positive. Modernization comes at a cost. During my visit, I fell upon a story of passion and resilience: a community living the often invisible toll of a growing city.

On Facebook Maria da Penha’s profile picture is one of anguish: her face bloodied from a confrontation with riot police, her nose broken, vision foggy in the left eye.

Penha, 51 years old, a house cleaner turned community activist, stands not much taller than 5 feet and weighs less than 100 pounds. Standing next to her husband, Luiz Claudio, 53, a physical education teacher, she welcomes a group of American University students visiting to hear the story of her community.

It’s January, the peak of Brazilian summer. We are in Vila Autódromo, a small waterfront favela (low-income community) in Barra da Tijuca, the neighborhood in the West Zone of Rio home to the Olympic Park. Vila Autódromo shares a wall with the Olympic grounds. Only a fence separates us from the soon-to-be Olympic media hotel and parking lot.

Ever since Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes announced the Olympic Park would be built in their front yard in 2009, Penha and Claudio have become accustomed to visitors. School groups, international video crews, and reporters all want to hear the story of a community being torn down in the name of international sport — me included.

Their routine is well-rehearsed, walking me through empty lots of demolished homes and sharing memories.

Luiz Claudio stands among the rubble left over from demolished homes.
Tara Golshan

Claudio wears a white T-shirt that reads, "Viva A Vila Autódromo, Rio Sem Remoções."

Long Live Vila Autódromo, Rio Without Removals.

"It’s like a war zone," Claudio says, picking through rubble. After knocking down a house, the city leaves the debris to make the community feel uninhabitable, he tells me.

He brings out a photo album, selecting a photo of kids posing after a game of soccer. They’re standing in front of a row of houses. Without words, Claudio gestures that we, standing in an empty lot on a pile of bricks and dirt, are in the same spot as the kids in the picture.

The rubble is more common than housing in Vila Autódromo. The neighborhood kids play in the life-size dollhouses formed from partly torn-down buildings.

The remaining buildings and surrounding fences are covered in graffiti. Rio De Janeiro Na Lama. Rio de Janeiro in the mud. A Barra C/pobres a politicia sem corrupção. Barra with the poor, politics without corruption. As Olimpiada passim a justicia fica suja. The Olympics come, justice gets dirty.

"We never received any investments from the city"

Vila Autódromo wasn’t supposed to be like this. Penha moved to the community in 1994 with her mother and daughter from Rocinha, Rio’s largest and most densely populated favela, to escape chaos. Vila Autódromo was safe and quiet. When gang and drug violence erupted in other favelas, families would send their kids to friends and relatives in Vila Autódromo to keep them safe.

"I always dreamed about leaving [Rocinha] to have a decent house where I could have space," Penha said. "When I arrived in Vila Autódromo, I found it: the space, the tranquility, the peace."

She bought her house with a 27-year deed and rights to the land. Over the next two decades, she and Claudio saved to slowly renovate their home to their liking: three stories, a spacious rooftop deck where the neighborhood kids come to play table tennis, a courtyard with fruit trees that fed them, a gated front.

Just past the gate, there’s a small entryway that doubled as the community chapel for nearly a decade, where she and her husband once exchanged wedding vows. Claudio shows me a picture of their wedding day.

It’s been a long time since they have had any peace.

The Olympic Park made visible through the gap in houses. Maria da Penha and Luiz Claudio’s house is the one on the left.
Tara Golshan

If it were up to the city of Rio, Vila Autódromo would be gone, its residents redistributed and the land "modernized." But the residents know better: If the city really wanted to modernize, it would have long ago invested in paving roads, building bus stops or schools, or planting trees. In Vila Autódromo, improvements came from within the community.

"We planted the trees, we paved the roads," Penha says. "Everything was built by the residents. We built the bus stop. We never received any investments from the city."

They’ve never had a school. The children have to go to other parts of the city.

In the past four years, any financial offerings from the city have been to the individual residents, paying them to leave or enticing them with public housing units.

"I was offered R$2 million [$630,000] for my house," Penha said.

But she turned it down: "No other place will be worth as much to me. I have love for this land, I like living here, I like my house — I built it the way I wanted to. We have freedom here. We don’t have militias or traffickers here — we are free. And this freedom is rare in Rio."

Those who refused the city’s offers were often served with immediate eviction notices and bulldozers. Before the start of the Olympic project in 2010, about 600 families lived in Vila Autódromo. By January, the community was home to about 40 families.

"I am sad seeing sports getting used for these sordid and cowardly purposes"

The second time I visited Penha, it was late in the day. A woman, Dona Mariza, was slumped on the living room couch asleep — she has been staying with Penha and Claudio ever since her house was demolished without notice last October. Penha, too, was tired, her eyes weary. I wasn’t the first journalist she had spoken to that day.

There was another removal that afternoon. One of the families had accepted the city’s money offer. The removals look as heartless as they sound. A bulldozer sinks its teeth into the structure haphazardly. Belongings either forgotten or abandoned fall among the rubble. Someone holds a water hose toward the wreckage to quell the dust. The family watches as their former life crumbles. A police patrol sits distant to observe.

Watch: what Rio doesn’t want the world to see

When the city started removing houses four years ago, the community reacted with protest, Penha among them. The city would send riot police with shields and batons, as a bloody reminder that the fight would always be unbalanced. Questioning their rights was met with force. On one occasion Penha was left with a broken nose and bloody face: her profile picture on Facebook.

Penha’s Facebook has become a careful curation of each family’s eviction, many of which have ended in violent protest.

By January, the housing removals were almost weekly.

Penha and Claudio have lived in Vila Autódromo for 20 years. They say the government has been eyeing the land since they moved in, in the 1990s.

The Olympics have given the fight new vigor. For the city, the international sporting event serves as a new deadline to modernize for an international exposition, just as the World Cup was before it, and some other excuse before that.

Claudio, who has loved sports all his life, refuses to accept that the Olympics — something that brings so much unity — is the root of all this pain in his community.

"I am sad seeing sports getting used for these sordid and cowardly purposes," he says, pointing a finger at wealthy developers looking to do some "social cleansing."

When Rio’s Mayor Paes presented the Olympic plan in 2012, he spoke of a "socially integrated" Barra — a "city of the future" — in a TED talk. But some of Barra’s most powerful stakeholders, like 92-year-old billionaire Carlos Carvalho, who owns about 65 million square feet of property in Barra, have been less diplomatic with their visions of the area: Carvalho dreams of Barra as "a city of the elite, of good taste," with an Olympic village for the upper class, "not housing for the poor," he told the Guardian last year.

How bulldozers and riot police threatened to ruin the neighborhood

Maria da Penha, bloodied after an altercation with riot police in Vila Autódromo in June 2015.
Kátia Carvalho

Vila Autódromo has existed since the late 1960s. In the early years, living conditions were precarious.

"No one wanted to live here because it was deserted; there was no electricity and no water," Penha said. Construction workers building what was once a neighboring racetrack moved in to be close to work.

"These men would build a shack and bring their families," Pehna said. "That’s how the community grew."

When she arrived in the early 1990s, there wasn’t a bakery or a market, only a shack that sold beer and cigarettes. One neighbor had a small bar outside of their house, and another woman made bread in her home and sold it to the community.

But as the population grew through the 2000s, more people opened businesses — a salon, a few more bars, a market.

"They’ve all left now," Penha says.

Bulldozers destroyed their sense of community. Riot police have bullied away their friends.

Living conditions in Vila Autódromo had returned to its challenging beginnings: The electricity and water shut off at the city’s will.

But this time, the world was watching.

The fight to rebuild Vila Autódromo

Maria da Penha in front of her house with her pregnant neighbor Sofia Valentina.
Tara Golshan

Penha doesn’t blame people for leaving. The instability of possibly losing your home has caused a lot of turmoil for families debating whether to take the city’s money offers.

"There were a lot of families with divorcing couples, sons fighting their parents, husbands and wives, grandmothers with grandchildren," Claudio said. "We've lost bonds of friendship of many years, decades, because of this traumatic process."

Penha has her own justifications. Perhaps newer families don’t have the years of memories she does, or maybe they didn’t know about their rights.

"I didn’t know anything about my rights before, and now I have this understanding. It’s been a sad process because so many people don’t know their rights — they sold their rights," Penha said. "Because I think that if everyone had understood these rights, many of them would have stayed."

What’s happening in Vila Autódromo serves as a reminder to the rest of the favelas in Rio.

"Man destroys everything," Penha said.

But with God on her side, she will fight to rebuild it, she says.

Our conversation was often interrupted by a phone call or a neighbor’s knock. When I had arrived, Penha was deep in conversation with her neighbor, a young, very pregnant woman named Sofia Valentina.

She pointed to her friend’s bursting belly, almost as if to say, Look, our community is still growing.

Sofia Valentina holding her newborn baby in February.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Penha and Claudio’s house was demolished on March 8, 2016, after my visit, and Claudio’s trees were cut down. The city has rebuilt the community for the remaining 20 families in time for the Olympics. What was once a village of unique and individualized homes is now a row of small, boxy houses, all painted white. Penha and Claudio see it as a small but substantive victory.

"We've suffered a lot in here," Claudio told my colleague Johnny Harris during his June visit. "Living inside a construction site, with dust, lack of electricity, water, tractors shaking your entire house at all moments, cutting your trees that you've planted."

He continued: "We are happy because we've reached our goal. But the happiness isn't complete because in this process, longer than three years, many people wanted to stay and had their life stories interrupted."

In the past months, the two camped in the community’s church and in shipping crates offered by the city as temporary housing. Most of their friends have moved away.

Translation: Meg Healy
Follow-up reporting: Johnny Harris
Video: Tara Golshan, edited by Christophe Haubursin


Nikki Haley’s “rise” and the Republican flight from reality


What Matt Rife’s baffling Netflix special tells us about comedy


Alex Murdaugh stands guilty of killing his wife and son. That’s just scratching the surface.

View all stories in The Latest