The invisible refugees from the favelas in Rio

"Your daughter is mine. I'll take care of her." These few words, which came out of the mouth of a drug dealer from the favela of Acari, in the north area of Rio de Janeiro, made Pedro* drop everything he had overnight. He lived with his family, including a 16-year-old daughter, in a nearby neighbourhood and was known by the inhabitants for having the bar outside his home. He was there drinking a beer at the bar when he got this warning from a drug dealer. The next day, the bar was closed. Neighbours never heard from him or his family again.

This story above happened about 15 years ago and was told by a former inhabitant. According to specialists, this illustrates a very common, and invisible, reality in the favelas and peripheral neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro: the power that drug trafficking has on the life of several girls in the communities and their respective families. "There is a contingent of refugees in Rio de Janeiro, an invisible movement of people, because trafficking not only takes up the hills and the houses of the people, but also the bodies of the girls. They become their girls!", says Jacqueline Pitanguy, coordinator of the NGO CEPIA (Citizenship, Study, Research, Information and Action).

The story repeats itself everywhere. "When the girls start to grow and their bodies develop, the guys start checking them out. If the guy has a status within trafficking, he'll be more at ease to do what he wants. For example, warn the family that the girl is his, something which is very frequent", explains Cristina Fernandes, psychologist and coordinator of Centro Integrado de Atendimento à Mulher (CIAM) Márcia Lyra (Integrated Centre for Assistance to Women), the oldest service in Rio de Janeiro that offers guidance to women who are victims of violence. "She is then not allowed to date anyone, to have sex with anyone. He has to be the first", concludes the psychologist, specialised in cases of underage abuse.

Fernandes considers that, on many occasions, these chosen girls and their families end up accepting the conditions imposed by the drug dealers for a matter of status. In these cases, she may become part of the harem of the dealer and even his first lady, as she explains. "But we still see this as sexual violence. The girls are very young and have no idea of the consequences. They may end up being discarded, given to someone else of a lower status or even given as a gift."

But what happens when the family or the victim do not accept the notification of the dealer? Or what happens if, after continuous sexual abuse, the girl decides enough is enough and reports it? "The family must run away from the community so that they are not killed", says Fernandes incontrovertibly.

This is what happened to the stonemason Antônio, who worked for Pitanguy and other people from his neighbourhood, and lived in a house at the top of the hill on the south side of Rio. One day, many years ago, the house was taken over by drug dealers because it had a very good view. But they didn't just want the house. "He left for some time. And when we found him, he told us: ‘They were going to take my daughters! I left, I couldn't stay there!'".

*The name of the person is fictitious.

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