Life inside a Favela: How football wins over drug trafficking

Srinwantu Dey speaks to street football legend and director of Favela Street Foundation Roxanne Hehakaija to investigate life inside Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas and how football is taking a giant step to resurface their lives from the grip of drug-trading.

When we first hopped in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of days, our Venezuelan friends warned us “Do not go there with your flashy cameras or without a guide. You don’t know what might be waiting for you.” It was back in the summer of 2014 during the festivities of the World Cup. Next day, on a humid evening, we started our journey from the famous and artistic Lapa to the neighbourhood of Santa Teresa climbing up the world famous Selaron Steps. The walls, stairs and floors were covered with charming, colourful mosaics and paintings. They were created by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón as a tribute to Brazil, which gave us an instant illusion of a colourful utopian world.

Suddenly, heavy smells of marijuana, inexpensive beer and Cachaça (a Brazilian local liquor made of sugarcane juice) struck us. They had amalgamated together creating a mysterious ambience around us. A bunch of stoned guys lay on the floor of the sidewalks. Once we finished the steps and slowly started moving towards the interiors of Santa Teresa neighbourhood, the streets started getting narrower and the houses clumsier. More we walked uphill we started seeing dull food stations, open beer bars. Few teenagers were watching television on the streets, few of them were juggling balls. The women were sitting by the doorsteps talking to neighbours. Those narrow streets were extremely crowded. We encountered a stare or two. They were not scary but uncanny. Some of these stares were amusing, while others were cold. “You don’t know what might be waiting for you”, the warning from my friend kept buzzing in my subconscious as we were slowly ambling into the Santa Teresa favela.

  • description
  • description
  • description
  • description

Scenes from the walkway from Lapa to Santa Teresa neighborhood. Rio, 2014.

The favelas are factions of a completely different world where colourful houses open out to dark alleys, street parties and marijuana dominate the night-life and poverty becomes so obvious that the lives of people here take a completely different path. In layman’s term favelas are the urban slums or shanty towns located in the city and suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. There are nearly a thousand favelas in the city and according to 2011 census data nearly 1.5 million people (24% of the population) live in favelas. But that’s just an official figure. Rocinha – the largest favela of Brazil – is claimed to have an unofficial population of 180,000, whereas the census report puts the number at 70,000.

Providência, Rio’s oldest favela, was established by Brazilian veterans of the brutal Canudos war (Guerra dos Canudos) in 1897, within a decade of abolition of slavery. Gradually, former slaves with no land ownership, assets and employment started living here. It has been more than 100 years now, the favelas still lack the basic amenities, public planning and investment. Sanitation and sewage are often a major problem for the inhabitants. But the real problem lies elsewhere. Most of the favelas are infected with high crime rates and violence, being dominated by drug-lords and mafia. Although Pacifying Police Units (UPP) are stationed in many favelas now, a study showed that the drug-traffickers still retain complete control on 370 favelas (37% of the total).

Roxanne Hehakaija, director of Favela Street Foundation.

Though our visit was too short to understand the dynamics of the community, we could understand that despite all these problems, the residents are fighting their everyday battle staying in the toughest conditions. And yet, they smile, they dance and keep playing football.
Roxanne ‘Rocky’ Hehakaija – a very familiar name in international street football arena, shared similar thoughts when we recently spoke with her. She was born Dutch and is the only female member of Street Legends, the best street football team in the world. However, that’s not her only identity. She had brought change in the Brazilian slum communities to a great extent. When she was asked about the life in a favela, she explained, “Every favela has their own rules, cultures and dominant background.”

Life inside a favela can vary to a great degree depending upon who controls the favela – is it the UPP or is it controlled by a drug-gang or militia? One of the problems we see in a lot of the favelas is lack of opportunities and chances to be included in mainstream society. If the rest of the society doesn’t accept you, doesn’t properly invest in your wellbeing, then it becomes an extremely hard place for growing up.

Rocky added, “People are on survival mode. Gang-members become role-models for most of them who lives in the streets.”

Obstacles they face are countless – poverty, lack of good education, lack of good healthcare and job opportunities. Police aggression and corruption are also another face of the crisis. Shootouts between police and gangs or between rival gangs are a common sight in these communities. When urban warfare breaks out in the penurious shanty-towns of Rio de Janeiro, the paranoid civilians turn into puppets of the situation where a stray bullet from either side could take their lives.

At the same time, the favela culture is still one of all together – sharing a plate or a drink, making the best out of life. And being creative to come up with solutions for day to day problems. The favela can be a very warm and welcoming place, with the most beautiful people living there.

Rocky sounded worried but she also cherished the positive sides of the communities, “At the same time, the favela culture is still one of all together – sharing a plate or a drink, making the best out of life. And being creative to come up with solutions for day to day problems. The favela can be a very warm and welcoming place, with the most beautiful people living there.”

Favelas have often played a critical role as a breeding ground for talented footballers. Adriano, the famous Brazilian striker of Inter Milan spent his poverty-stricken childhood in Vila Cruzeiro, one of the most notorious favelas of Rio. Adriano left the favela for the glory that awaited him in Europe, but the place remained the same. Just before Adriano was set to join Parma in 2002, Tim Lopes – the famous investigative journalist for Rede Globo was killed brutally by drug traffickers in the same favela where Adriano grew up. Tim, who grew up in Mangueira favela near Maracana Stadium was a huge fan of local club Vasco da Gama and was famous for writing award winning feature stories on football for reputed magazines and dailies. Back then he was performing an undercover story on drug trafficking in Vila Cruzeiro favela and was reportedly dragged to the top of the hill by the drug-traffickers, wounded severely with a sword and then his body was placed within tires and set on fire. This is an infamous technique used by the drug-lords known as micro-ondas or micro-oven to teach the offenders a lesson or two.

Life moved on, situation remained unchanged. The state had chosen to abandon the favela communities, but few people didn’t. Roxanne Hehakaija was one of them.


Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Penha or Church of Lady of Penha is a marvellous Catholic church located at the top of the hill in Complexo da Penha, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest and most dangerous favelas. The church is a fantastic example of Brazilian baroque colonial style architecture and attracts many visitors. Beneath this historical monument the daily lives of nearly 50,000 inhabitants of the favela take place. Inside the favela, somewhere in the uphill climb on a regular afternoon, we spotted a bunch of girls practicing football drills on an artificial turf.

While the view of hilltop communities – that shimmers at night on the backdrop of dark mountains – from Rio’s most famous beaches is splendid, the reality is harshly different. For the inhabitants here, the biggest challenge they face is to stay alive. Another major challenge for the families are the kids who are heavily exposed to the lure of drug trafficking. In the favela communities most of the primary schools have 4-hour-programs and the rest of the day the kids can be easily allured to be involved in drug-trading for easy money. Seeing a twelve-year-old with a magnum revolver is not a rare sight inside the narrow winding streets of favelas.

But there was a ray of hope. The good folks of ‘Favela Street’ was there.

Favela Street is founded by Philip Veldhuis. He started the project in 2012. It started with an internship at a Dutch foundation in Rio de Janeiro. He developed a program to transform former drug gang members into a new and positive role model, as football trainer. The program was laborious and not to mention, extremely risky. But Philip showed the way. They dropped their guns and picked up a ball. Football became their companion, happiness and habit.





Rocky mentioned, “The mission of Favela Street is to create a new generation of strong role models with the power of street football.”
In 2013, Philip started with a girls’ football program in Rio. To help him out he invited street football legend Rocky Hehakaija to partner up with him, which Rocky gladly accepted. She had already mesmerized the world by her insane tricks with the ball, now it was time for a bigger task.

Together they successfully organized the girls’ program, with over 80 participants within six months. The group of girls are still independently organizing football activities for the girls in the favela with the help of Street Child United. These young girls transformed into powerful female role models. Together with Street Child United they continue looking for opportunities for the girls in their development through education and intern or job opportunities.

In 2014, Philip and Rocky started their own foundation, Favela Street, to create a new generation of strong role models with the power of street football. To spread their program, they expanded their work to the slums of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. They are still frequently in contact with the youngsters in Rio and Port-au-Prince through social media and often visit the places.

“The initial response of the favela habitants in Rio was positive. They immediately felt the positive energy of the project. Together we developed an inspirational football program.” Rocky recalled, “Of course we had obstacles along the way. But with clear and transparent communication, we were able to overcome these obstacles.”

One of the Favela Street Foundation member experiencing the beauty of the game when she was expecting.
One of the Favela Street Foundation member experiencing the beauty of the game when she was expecting.

When we asked Rocky how did they start this project in a foreign and not so friendly space, she explained their tactics, “We always work with local people who live within the community. We partner up with them and give them ownership of the project. We see ourselves as an outsider who are coming into their community. That’s why we find it important to work intensively with local partners. That also means to visit the houses of the participants, to talk with the family to explain what we are trying to do.”

The project has not always been rosy for Phil and his team. The crime and drug addiction rate in the favela is still very high and gun violence is part and parcel of their lives. When they work in Rio they must need to be flexible and extremely careful with these severe circumstances. Before the World Cup and the Olympic, the favelas became an urban war field when pacifying units surged into the communities to sweep off the drug dealers.

“Sometimes we have to break off the training because the gunfire starts. Or we can’t train at all because the situation is too dangerous,” Rocky exclaimed, “Philip and I both lived in the favela. We both have encountered with gunfights between drug gangs and police. But we always try to stay positive and be safe.”

Sometimes we have to break off the training because the gunfire starts. Or we can’t train at all because the situation is too dangerous. Philip and I both lived in the favela. We both have encountered with gunfights between drug gangs and police. But we always try to stay positive and be safe.

Several of Favela Street’s participants and network partners used to be part of the drug and gang life. Favela Street always tries to give value to the community and emphasizes and stimulates positive and constructive behaviour. Besides better healthcare, social programs and better education the favelas need positive role-models, examples of people who are successful and showing that if you follow your dream you can achieve it. The kids and girls learned team spirit, confidence and above all gained an identity which gave them courage to survive against all adversaries.

Thanks to them and Street Child United, another organization that acts as their local partner in Rio, there is a new football pitch in the community and girls from other parts of the city can come and train there.


Jessica is one of the Favela Street Girls’ trainers from the Rio project. She is thin, strong with short curly hair and is extremely skilful on the pitch. She used to be a drug gang member. She used to smuggle guns and drugs from Paraguay to Brazil. Though Paraguay does not manufacture weapons, it is a key hub for arms trafficking and contraband. Brazil being among world’s top few countries with heavy gun deaths, the phenomenon of arms trafficking there is always a major concern. She slowly got entangled into the trap.

Jessica was unsure about her life. She felt threatened and wanted to escape. Having no other option her grandmother went and pleaded with the gang-leader to get Jessica out. She wasn’t working in the area she was living, but the same gang was also active there with another chapter. Even though she was not directly involved anymore, she was still very close to them in daily life.

Philip noticed the curious but shy girl watching the Favela Street’s girls train, and asked her to join the team and train with them. Jessica was initially hesitant. After being insisted several times, she accepted the invitation and started coming frequently to the trainings. At this point of time, she was still close to gang-life but she started experiencing a positive, constructive and new vibe with Favela Street. She really liked to come and play with them and explored more of this new exciting opportunity. Her change had not gone unnoticed and Philip invited her to join other trainings and meetings in other places.

Jessica found busy in practicing during Favela Street Girls training session.
Jessica found busy in practicing during Favela Street Girls training session.

Jessica’s life could have been like of Fabiana Escobar who was married to one of the most powerful drug lords in Rio de Janeiro, Saulo de Sá Silva, and later herself became the drug queen of Rio. Known widely as Bibi Perigosa in Rocinha, she was infamous for her brutality and criminal mastermind. One of her photographs where she posed with a gold-plated submachine gun, has placed her into the folklores of Rio’s underworld. Jessica could have been another Bibi Perigosa or she could have spent her life under prison forever. Even worse could have happened. A large number of young drug runners lose their lives before they turn 21.

Jessica was fortunate enough to have another chance. After the gang was disrupted, Fabiana is nowadays just another common woman. Saulo has been in prison for years, and she barely manages to overcome her daily needs. But Jessica wanted to tell others her story so they could have a better life. There are thousands of young girls in Brazil’s slums who are intoxicated by the power, money and status of drug lords. She explained how the women are an important part of the drug cartels, and are increasingly being used as inconspicuous couriers. In Rio alone, the number of female prison inmates increased by 66 percent between 2007 and 2012. Currently more than 1,700 women are imprisoned in the state, mostly for offenses related to the drug trade. Jessica could have been one of them.

Favela Street motivated her to choose a different life and kept her out of the gang life. It was a long and hard process, with a lot of ups and downs. But now Jessica is one of the Favela Street Girls’ trainers. This way she enjoyed her time far from her past, seeing more of this other world. She also took up more responsibilities and became one of the trainers of the group.

Favela Street girls enjoying their time, performing the Harlem Shake

In the summer of 2015 she spent three months in England, Cambridge, to learn English. She also accomplished a work internship at five-star hotel, Ceasar Park, in Ipanema. She is still active as a trainer and Favela Street is now helping her to set up her own shop, where she will repair broken microwaves and other electrical appliances.

The story of another Favela Street Girls’ trainer, Dryka Santos, is also impressive and inspiring. She grew up in a favela without knowing her father. Her mother was there, but wasn’t able to look after her daughter. From an early age she learned to take care of herself and of others around her. When she joined the project they noticed her leadership skills and started to train her to become a trainer for the group as well. Dryka is still active as a trainer and in a process of becoming a local ambassador, so that she can inspire many more girls like her. She will be heading the local department of the project – Familia Caracol. Moreover, the mother-daughter relationship also has been mended. Like Jessica she also went to England, Cambridge, to study English and also participated in a UN conference in Germany, to talk about the rights of children.

Dryka Santos spotted smiling during a training session at Complexo de Penha
Dryka Santos spotted smiling during a training session at Complexo de Penha

“It gives a major boost to see your project grow,” Rocky couldn’t suppress her emotion, “Philip and I started the girls program with 8 girls and within 6 months we had over 80 participants in two favelas.”

The changes in their lives started with football, but went so much further than just being a football trainer. Though a favela is a difficult place to live in, it also breathes life, energy and happiness. People in a favela try to make the best out of life.

“We travelled from favela to favela in our Combi (minivan) to transport the girls to play football. We created a family and with football we brought joy and positive vibes.” Rocky explained with satisfaction, “The girls earned their spot on the football field, in the community, they became somebody!”

If you visit the playing ground, known as ‘Safe Space’, in Complexo de Penha where these girls practise football four times a week, you would notice the blue and brown spray paint on the giant white wall that reads ‘I am somebody’ in bold capital – which was the slogan of Street Child World Cup 2014 – along with hundreds of other names of the Favela Street players. Jessica, Dryka, Thaiane all had those words printed on the back of their shirts, and they believed the same – ‘I am somebody’.

One of the most incredible experiences they’ve had with the Favela Street Girls was playing at the Street Child World Cup in 2014. Over 200 street children came together in Rio to participate in a football tournament. Favela Street Girls got the honour to represent Brazil in the tournament. Girls who never played an official game, or thought would come out of lives of favela that marred with several struggles, wore the national colours of Brazil. They felt so proud. They won the tournament and instantly became national icons. This success had a major impact on the lives and self-confidence of the girls.

“Football is the national sport of Brazil, for us it’s the best way to connect and to communicate with youngsters. It’s a universal language.” Rocky aptly explained, “For us everything starts with a simple game of football. That’s why we think football can really change the lives in favelas.”

She added, “Like we said before, it starts with football and after playing football, we talk with the players, we explore their dreams and motivate them to think in a positive way. When we know what the dreams of the youngsters are, we try to connect them with opportunities to grow as a human and role model. So it starts with football, but we want to go further than the football pitch.”

And Favela Street is surely to achieve that, someday.

A huge thanks and round of applause for the Favela Street Foundation members for cooperation. If you want to contribute and take part in the project please visit here.

About Srinwantu Dey

Srinwantu Dey lives in Chicago who takes football journalism seriously under the huge influence of Eduardo Galeano. He is keenly interested in various creative ways of story-telling on the beautiful game, its diverse socio-cultural and humanitarian appeal. Srinwantu habitually travels, documents and visually captures how football explains different societies and ethnicities. He can be reached at @SrinwantuDey.