Latin America & Caribbean

The dealers, crooks and prostitutes of Rio's favela Passion Plays

The Via Sacra Image copyright AP

With the World Cup just six weeks away and the Olympics on the horizon, social dysfunction in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro is subject to increasing international scrutiny.

Many say authorities' attempts to tackle crime in Rio's famous slums have been heavy-handed and ineffective. But now more than ever it seems the city's residents are turning to faith to express their dissatisfaction with the police.

It's not often you get to interview Jesus, but last week I was lucky enough to have a few words with the great man before he took off on the road to the crucifixion.

Except on this occasion, he wasn't heading up a hill outside Jerusalem but a steep incline near the centre of Rio de Janeiro in South America's largest slum, Rocinha.

Jesus has been doing this for the last 22 years on Good Friday.

On this occasion, Andre Martins, a security guard at a nearby shopping mall, was playing Him for the fourth time.

The reconstruction is called the Via Sacra and it's not difficult to see why the show's director and founder, Aurelio Mesquita, cast this startlingly charismatic 27-year-old in the lead role.

I am surprised that his exceptionally clear diction and penetrating eyes have not earned him a role in one of Rio's television soap operas, which are sold all around the world.

But the Via Sacra is not about stars, or about a faithful reconstruction of Christ's final journey.

Each year Mr Mesquita selects important political and social issues to highlight in a show which, given its setting in Rocinha, cannot but shine a light on Brazil's huge levels of inequality.

These issues are never anything less than bold.

The traditional figures of the Passion Play have over the years been portrayed as drug dealers, corrupt policemen, prostitutes, victims of massacres and bent politicians among others, to emphasise what Mr Mesquita believes to be the contemporary relevance of Christ's personal philosophy.

This has created problems for Mr Mesquita from the very start.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Police officers had a strong presence in Rocinha in 2012
Image copyright AP
Image caption Andre Martins played the role of Jesus during the re-enactment of the Passion of Christ

Indeed, after the first performance in 1992 he was condemned from the pulpit of Rio's Roman Catholic Cathedral for, it was deemed, tainting the story of Christ by associating it with a favela, as the slums in Brazil are known.

I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Catholic hierarchy were grumbling when they learned that one of this year's themes was about what Andre Martins, aka Jesus, described to me as the global scourge of paedophilia.

But the subject that hovers every year around the performance of the Via Sacra is the vexed issue of the relationship between Rocinha's residents and the police.

Never has this subject had a more acute political resonance than it does today, only weeks before the World Cup kicks off.

In November 2011 Rocinha became part of an extraordinary experiment known either as Pacification or more commonly by the acronym UPP.

This involved sending in special forces in two sprawling favela complexes the Brazilian military. The aim was to push out the drug cartels.

They controlled the slums as their base to sell cocaine to the wealthy middle-class children of neighbouring areas.

Image copyright AP
Image copyright AP
Image caption Roman Catholics throughout Latin America pay tribute to Jesus Christ in Holy Week traditions that range from religious processions to self-flagellation

Once the traffickers were forced out or arrested, police then established a heavy armed presence in the favelas to prevent their return.

This show of state power was meant to be followed by something equally important to the residents of Rocinha - the Social UPP, which was supposed to bring more schools, health centres and social services.

The aim was to reduce the high levels of murder and robbery associated with the drug gangs and put an end to state indifference towards the favelas.

Amongst other aims, this was designed to reassure visitors to Rio during the World Cup and, in two years' time, to the Olympics.

Like almost every resident of Rocinha, Mr Mesquita says there has been no sign of the Social UPP since the police moved in over two years ago.

"Nothing," he stresses bitterly, "absolutely nothing."

This perceived failure has been compounded by the creeping return of some drug traffickers into the favela, and a disastrous incident last July when an innocent labourer was tortured to death by members of the UPP force.

The officers were supposed to be trained in more community-friendly policing techniques.

And that is why the Via Sacra, Jesus's journey to the cross, was imbued with such tension this year.

Is the UPP coming apart at the seams just before the World Cup? Mr Mesquita doesn't know and he has something more important on his mind - the endless task of finding funds for next year's Via Sacra.

I hope he finds them because his remarkable project is one of the most creative uses of Christian iconography I have ever encountered.

Image copyright Reuters

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