An upcoming special documentary episode of To The Contrary with Bonnie Erbé demonstrates how men can turn away from violence and embrace being caring fathers in soccer-mad Brazil. The episode, "Becoming Papa", will air at the end of May. Check local listings.
"Just a few years ago, we would have been shot for being here," our on—site producer said softly. "I’m glad it’s this year then," I responded nervously.
We were in Santa Marta, one of Rio De Janeiro’s "favelas", or slums, built precariously on the side of a mountain. Getting from one place to the other involves going up snaking stone steps surrounded by multi-colored houses.
In 2008, the community was locked down and Brazilian special police came in to "pacify" the town. It was the first favela to receive "pacification," and it’s now considered a "model" favela.
Before then, the drug lords ran the town, with zero police presence. The raids involved shootouts with the drug cartels. They ended with a permanent special police headquarters installed at the entrance of the favela. Today, 34 favelas have been pacified.
The violence levels in pacification raids are so high, they have become the subject of a successful action movie franchise, Elite Squad. The director, Jose Padilha, even went on to direct a big-budget Hollywood film, the Robocop remake.
Capturing the drug lords’ strongholds has confirmed what one would suspect. While most of the residents lived in abject poverty, the drug lords had indoor jacuzzis, big-screen TVs, and tons of guns and ammo.
Since the pacification of Santa Marta, there have been social upgrades to the infrastructure as well.
Amazingly, Santa Marta has become something of a tourist destination. The small eatery has a brochure promoting "Favela Cuisine." Michael Jackson famously shot his "They Don't Care About Us" music video here. A mural and a statue have sprang up where an iconic scene was shot. A crude sign made out of cardboard offers his DVDs and music.
Still the specter of Santa Marta’s past permeates its narrow passageways. It’s not advisable for anyone to go without a guide, doubly so for foreigners. It’d be presumptuous to assume the influence of the drug lords — who were literally lords here a few years ago — has completely disappeared.
I was given a swift reminder of that later that day.
We had brought a Phantom quadcopter with a GoPro camera to take aerial shots. Basically, it’s a small helicopter drone with four propellers, controlled via remote. It holds an even small camera that holds an even smaller memory card.
I was standing next to MJ’s replica with the copter hanging in the air over a precipice when I spotted a troubling second object occupying the airspace. This UFO was actually a kite. "Some kid is flying his kite," I thought. "Better land."
There were two things I did not know at the time.
First, that a recently-released drug dealer lived around where I was flying, and that he was not too keen on something videotaping him.
Second, that "kite fighting" is a sport most popular in parts of Asia … and the favelas. The goal is to knock down the other’s kite with your own.
The kite string, thin and nearly invisible from my point of view, intercepted my landing. It caught one of the propellers, causing the copter to stall and come crashing down.
We sprinted down the steps to the spot of the crash. Thankfully, we found the copter. It was in one piece, though the propellers were irredeemably warped.
Then, we went on our mission of finding the small camera and the even-smaller-than-that memory card, which were launched from their places during impact. Improbably, we were able to find them. Improbably, the shots were all OK — save for the crash shot, which was corrupted. Just as improbably, the damage was actually quite minimal. Besides the propeller, only one part needed replacing.
Our drone being forced down was just one more reminder that Santa Marta’s recent past was indeed, quite recent.
There is still extreme poverty in the favelas. Compared to the affluence of other parts of Rio and bearing in mind Brazil’s booming economy, it’s natural for some residents to ask, as graffiti near the entrance to Santa Marta says, "‘model favela’ — model of what?"
But there was something here, something worth bringing thousands of dollars’ worth of heavy equipment from To The Contrary’s offices in Washington, D.C., to the other hempishere and lugging it up and down the steps in the hot Brazilian sun.
At this and another favela, Bonnie Erbé, the host of the show, spoke with two men who came from a history of violence and abuse — Gilson "Fumaça" Da Silva and Marcio Chagas Da Paz — who participated in a program intended to bring social change.
Promundo, a non-governmental organization based in Rio, is working globally towards engaging men to break the cycle of violence through its Men Care Campaign.
Marcio was abused by his father and witnessed his mom and siblings experience violence as well. Men who grew up in abusive households are more likely to become abusive themselves.
Fumaça came from a similar background. When he grew up, he abused his girlfriends. He got in trouble with the law.
Now, these two men are caring fathers who respect women. How did this happen?
Promundo works in many different ways to promote social change. But one key way is to get men to attend a series of meetings that are part group therapy and part educative.
An important way the men are enticed to signed up is through soccer.
Soccer is Brazil’s number one sport, and Brazil is the number one country when it comes to soccer. The Brazilian national team has won the World Cup a record five times, and they are hosting the tournament this summer.
In a strategy Fumaça described as both "clever" and "very sneaky", the men of the favelas are offered free entry into an amateur soccer league if they attend the meetings. They are provided with uniforms, balls, goalposts, a referee — everything for free.
Men who miss too many meetings are off the team — no matter if they are capable of athletic bicycle kicks or crunching tackles. But if you stay... you get to play.
Through the meetings and other programs, the men of the favelas are slowly starting to renounce violence and embrace family and happiness.
This June, millions of eyeballs will be glued to TV sets, phones, computers, and tablets when Brazil kicks off in their quest to become World Champions again in a match against Croatia.
But some of the most important soccer games in Brazil this year are already happening.
Fumaça and Marcio’s stories, which are full of heartbreak and hope, will be presented in a special documentary episode of To The Contrary with Bonnie Erbé. Check local listings. You can follow both To the Contrary and Bonnie Erbé on Twitter.