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  • September 22, 2014

This post is also available in: itItaliano (Italian) pt-brPortuguês (Portuguese (Brazil))

Rocinha, with over 250.000 inhabitants, is considered the largest slum in South America and it has been marked by armed conflicts between drug-dealers and local police. In November 2011, after over 40 years of “parallel power”, Rocinha was the theatre of an important historical event: the UPP (Police Pacification Unit), along with other special corps and military squads, occupied the favela and “dismantled” the drug trade.

Despite this, the favela still lacks basic facilities and services and lots of families live in severe poverty conditions. In comparison with the past, the Community life is quieter, but essential requirements such as sewer system, running water, city lighting, education and health are still missing in order to consider Rocinha as a neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, very often episodes of police abuse of power, human rights- and citizenship rights violation are reported.

Lying on the slopes of Mount Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers), behind the rich areas of Sao Conrado, Leblon and Ipanema, Rocinha is afflicted by many problems: bad sanitary conditions, overcrowding and the dampness of the houses help the spreading of infectious diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, hepatitis, meningitis and dengue fever.

In addition, it has to be reminded that the inhabitants of the favelas are discriminated and confined to a ghetto; they often cannot receive education and health assistance. Access to work is very complex and demotivating, unemployment is very high.

In this critical period of transition the non-profit organization “Il Sorriso dei miei Bimbi” renders service to the community, with sympathy, as intercultural bridge between Italy and Brazil, keen observer of the needs of a population looking for recognition, dignity and rights.




Rocinha developed in the early 30s around a first settlement, founded by immigrants from Italy and the North East, consisting in a few huts made of wood or other recycled materials. Since then the favela has grown bigger and bigger and now you can find buildings made of concrete and bricks with water, phone and electrical connections (often abusive) and commercial activities. 

In the past and till November 2011 the Community of Rocinha was one of the most important centres for cocaine and cannabis dealing in Brazil. In the slums you could find the houses of drug-dealers, who did not hesitate to use civilians as human shields in case of police raids. Before the installation of  Pacification Police Units (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora or UPPS) in November 2011, Rocinha was theatre of armed conflicts among drug-dealer gangs and also between drug-lords and police which caused the loss of civilian lives, innocent victims of stray bullets (bala perdida).


Between 1896 and 1897 thousands of “sertanejos” (inhabitants of the Sertao Region), guided by Antonio Conselheiro, moved to the State of Bahia and founded the town of Canudos to escape the dreadful situation they lived in. They were fed up with suffering humiliation and survival difficulties in the north eastern area affected by latifundism and severe drought.

Lots of sertanejos settled near “Morro da Favela”, which owes its name to this plant (fava). Fearing that the riot might shake the foundations of the newly born Republic, the central government ordered a real slaughter in Canudos. There were thousands killed, mass torture and rape. This event still represents one of the darkest pages in Brazil military history, yet more deplorable, considering the massive popular consent it received. When republican soldiers came back to Rio de Janeiro, they stopped receiving wages and, owing to the deterioration of their living conditions, they were forced to settle in wooden huts with no infrastructure, on the hills surrounding the city. The settlement was named “favela” to remind the terrible conditions of Canudos. The first one was “Morro da Providencia”.

This type of lodging was used in the past by freed slaves who could not afford to live in town and therefore began to settle on its hillside. The term “favela” or “slum” was soon applied to all illegal dwelling and was considered as synonym of poverty, abandon and social decay.

Since then the situation in Rocinha has incredibly been more or less the same until November 2011, when the UPP (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora), together with other special corps and military squads, occupied the favela and dismantled drug-trafficking after over 40 years of “parallel power”. The operation was carried out in compliance with the plan elaborated by the Secretariat of State for Civilian Security in Rio de Janeiro, which aim was to get rid of drug-dealers in the largest favelas of the city (more than 1000). Yet, there were high tension moments, with fear and panic, however violence was not necessary and no shots were fired.

CURIOSITY: The origin of the name “Rocinha”

In the 30s, after the crash of NY stock exchange of 1929, which forced many coffee growers to file for bankruptcy, the estate of Fazenda Quebra Cangalha was invaded and divided into small farms. Their products were then sold in Santos Dumont Square, where supplies from the southern area of the city were delivered. So, when customers asked where all those vegetables came from, farmers answered: “They come from over there, from a small field (roca – rocinha = field; editor’s note), just above Gavea neighbourhood.”

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