Former AP correspondent talks about life in Rio de Janeiro leading up to the Olympics

Juliana Barbassa, graduate of the University of Texas at Austin's School of Journalism, returned to campus on Nov. 16 to speak to a group of students and professors about her new book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.

After living and studying outside of South America for most of her life, Barbassa returned to her birthplace of Brazil in 2010 as a correspondent for the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro.

As she wrote in her book, Barbassa was called home by the new optimism surrounding Brazil as an emerging economic power that would soon be the stage for two global sport mega events.

Barbassa’s account, which follows her four-year stint in Rio for the AP, reveals housing, environmental and security challenges confronted by city officials and residents leading up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

She uses jacarés (caimans) to tell the story of development and environmental change; tracks down former prisoners to paint a picture of how the city’s most notorious gang, the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), rose to power; follows the dissolution of the mayor’s Morar Carioca program to reveal broken promises to improve housing; and talks to the mother of a gang member to show how poverty and violence transform life for the 1 in 4 Cariocas who live in favelas.

Some of the most harrowing reporting in the book comes from her coverage of the Pacifying Police Unit program, in which the city police push drug gangs out of the favelas and then set up shop in an attempt to regain control.

She recalled how the police, with assistance from the armed forces, invaded the Complexo do Alemão, a large favela compound, in 2012. In relaying her conversations with police chiefs and gangsters, she illustrated long-standing problems of gang violence, police corruption and brutality and racism in the favelas.

At Monday’s talk, she read a passage emblematic of all these problems; it also revealed her own status as an outsider who had spent years away from home, a topic also explored in the work:

“A police officer of some rank strode into the hospital at a fast clip. I didn’t catch his title, but the cops stationed at the door made way for him as he passed. I caught him on his way. I needed something concrete, numbers.

‘How many people have been killed?’ I asked.

None, he told me.

‘None?’ I asked. Again, that sense of bewilderment, of hearing but not understanding. ‘What about the bodies?’

‘No one died,’ he said again. ‘Just criminals.’

Barbassa’s inclusion of anecdotes like these alongside telling numbers and statistics provide a complex look at the changing Rio ahead of the 2016 summer Olympic Games.

Just as Barbassa was pulled to Rio as the global spotlight turned there, so were various international media outlets that created bureaus in the South American city.

Barbassa said those media outlets came with expectations that were different from Brazilian media and brought a heightened awareness to certain issues, including removals of residents from the favelas to make way for development. These media, she said, “added a new series of voices to the conversation.”

The journalist’s unique perspective as a Brazilian returning home, along with her knack for storytelling and inclusion of rich detail, make her book an important voice for Brazilians and a global audience that want to know today’s Rio.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.