RIO DE JANEIRO — At first glance, the favela known as Babilônia appears to be nothing more than an impoverished wasteland on a small mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach.

But a deeper look and an afternoon spent with some of the shanty town’s 3,500 residents gives light to a community characterized by strong Christian roots and, for the first time in its 80-year history, hope for the future.

Since the 1990s, pictures of Babilônia show men with machine guns and rifles standing on street corners and makeshift roofs. Known as the Terceiro Comando and Comando Vermelho, these drug-trafficking groups dictated everything from the hours Babilônia’s residents could leave their homes to the level of noise permitted from each house.

But in November 2008, a statewide police force in Rio de Janeiro known as the Police Pacifying Unit (UPP) set on a mission to clean and restore the city’s most dangerous favelas, using force to remove armed drug lords that had dominated the areas for decades.

Five years later, Babilônia and 224 other favelas are under UPP control, much to the happiness and relief of their residents. Recognized as one of the city’s most successful social initiatives over the past decade, the UPP has contributed to a drastic reduction in both crime rates and drug trafficking, which has allowed Babilônia’s residents the freedom to vote and practice their religion without the forced influence of weapon-bearing drug lords.

One resident, Adailton Nazario de Souza, described his neighborhood as suddenly a peaceful place to live. He enjoys seeing thousands of tourists each year enter the favelas as a result of increased safety.

“It’s so much better now,” said de Souza. “Before the pacification, nobody came here, because all the drug lords had weapons. But now tourists can get to know our community, and our community can get to know tourists.”

One of many practicing Catholics in Babilônia, he sees Pope Francis’ World Youth Day visit to Brazil as a well-timed inspiration in the journey to Babilônia’s revival.

“People are transformed by the Pope,” he said. “I think his presence and his words really change people for the better.”

UPP’s takeover has also allowed Babilônia’s Catholic church, Parroquia Nossa Senhora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary parish), to participate in WYD 2013 as a hub for German-speaking pilgrims and volunteers. Germany, Austria and Switzerland were among the countries represented by youth at the July 23 catechesis event.


A Chance to Succeed

As favela tourism grows and real-estate inquiries increase, residents have seen their property values skyrocket as much as 300% over the past three years, providing realistic opportunities for residents to leave if they so choose.

But for those who remain in Babilônia, the quality of life within the favela has improved as well. No longer having to consider armed drug lords, the Rio de Janeiro government is helping displaced residents find housing in one of 16 newly constructed apartment-style homes.

Priscila Chagas, 30, has resided in Babilônia for all of her adult life. Displaced as a child when her parents divorced, Chagas lived in a makeshift home from age 11, constructed on what the UPP now classifies as an “environmentally protected area.”

“I’d get home from work, and my floor would be completely flooded with mud,” Chagas recounted.

In 2008, when a series of floods washed away the infrastructure of her home, Chagas’ only option was to spend the next four years in government-rented housing before being awarded one of Babilônia’s new eco-friendly apartments with solar-powered lamps and presence sensors.

Among the accommodations in her new 148-square-foot apartment, Chagas says she’s grateful to have two bedrooms instead of just one for herself and three young children to share.

Another Babilônia resident, David Bispo, credits his Catholic faith and newfound opportunities in the neighborhood for becoming internationally recognized in his profession. The proud owner of Bar do David (David’s Bar), Bispo is an award-winning restaurateur, with news clippings from The New York Times and BBC on display for any customer who doubts the quality of a favela-based restaurant.

Bispo also has benefited greatly from a secure neighborhood, claiming that 50% of his consumers are national and international tourists.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever have the chance for this kind of success,” said Bispo, a lifelong favela resident. “But I knew I had put in the work to earn it. This is a very special stage in my life, and I’m thankful that God is blessing me for my hard work.”

Register correspondent Chris Kudialis filed this report from World Youth Day Rio.