The teleférico runs through Complex do Alemão, a neighborhood in Rio's once-infamous Zona Norte. / Claudio Lara


“What year was the favela pacified?”

“It’s better to say comunidade,” Tricia corrects us. She is tasteful and perky, a government employee who could star in a fitness video. “The community was pacified in 2010,” she says. Outside the windows of our cramped taxi, the glamour of Ipanema has given way to dusty roads on sharp inclines. Mangrove-like thickets of bootleg extension cords sag from electric poles, indicating where new service grids have not yet reached a particular street.

I have only been in Rio de Janeiro three days, but already my sparse Portuguese vocabulary contains an unusual number of euphemisms. “Pacification” is the word on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the official name for the Brazilian government’s controversial policy to bring legal regulation to the sprawling shantytowns surrounding Rio before the World Cup in June and the summer Olympics in 2016. The specialized police units created to enforce this process are UPP, short for Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora or Pacifying Police Unit. These highly trained soldiers wear bulletproof vests and uniforms of grayscale camo. They are charged with uprooting the gangs that have become embedded in local communities.

Tricia is leading us to Complexo do Alemão, a neighborhood famous enough to serve as the backdrop for a prominent soap opera, Salve Jorge, which features a UPP soldier’s star-crossed romance with a resident single mother. Complexo do Alemão is also distinguished from the dozens of other favelas surrounding Rio by an iconic new cable car transportation system, 152 gondolas running between six hilltop stations. English-language newspapers refer to it as a “gondola project,” but Tricia offers another corrective: “Better to call it the teleférico,” she says.

The teleférico, one of Rio's new infrastructure installations anticipating the World Cup, has become a novel attraction of favela tourism.

The shiny red gondola cars look like the enclosed cabs of a ski lift, stretching over ramshackle homes instead of snow banks. Rides are invitingly priced at only five Brazilian reais (less than $2.50 U.S.) for outside visitors. Standing at the platform, uniformed workers lift woven rope barriers for the clusters of passengers who climb into each car. The well-ordered lines and theatrical music blaring from the loudspeakers—a John Williams score and a Wagner opera—evoke the feeling of waiting for a ride at Disney World. When it is your turn to board, you have to step in quickly before glass doors whisk shut.

In contrast to the epic soundtracks playing on the platform, the gondola makes little noise as it moves along the wire. It creates an intimate space for discussion with strangers, like a moving confessional. We glide between the hilltops, mountains, and ravines below covered in a patchwork of tin roofs and cement courtyards, interspersed with trees and flowering vines. Many of the teleférico platforms are built adjacent to police stations labeled “UPP” in tall block letters. After one of the stations was attacked in 2012, 1,800 officers came to patrol this favela alone.

The pacification of Alemão was particularly violent. Gang members, Tricia explains, had consolidated on one hill, holding it as a military position. Police troops stormed through the narrow streets, many arriving in army tanks and the armed cars people call “big skulls” (caveirão). Thirty-some locals reportedly died in the showdown of November 2010, a turning point in siege operations that by then had been coming in waves for years. In their book Living in the Crossfire (2011), Maria Helena Moreira Alves and Philip Evanson note that police also killed at least forty-three people in Alemão between May and August of 2007 alone, including nineteen children who died by stray bullets. In all, more than 10,000 people were killed during police confrontations in Rio between 2001 and 2011, according to sociologist Michel Misse and his collaborators at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Human Rights Watch reports that “a substantial portion” of the deaths “are in fact extrajudicial executions,” which are impossible to track because Brazil registers such fatalities as “resistance” killings.

From the gondola we take pictures of the dramatic landscape. Smears of grease on the windows show up in our photos like ghosts.

Everyone piles out at the last stop. At the station exit, children peddle water from battered styrofoam coolers hung on straps around their necks. I already have a water bottle in my hand, so the lanky preteen selling them asks if he can just have some money anyway. The younger girl with him is not wearing shoes, and I find myself equally embarrassed to say yes or no. A nearby orange sign reads, “MILITARY POLICE: WORKING FOR YOUR SECURITY” (“POLÍCIA MILITAR: TRABALHANDO PARA SUA SEGURANÇA”). Other tourists photograph the distant view, or browse among stands selling jewelry and shiny purses plaited from recycled snack wrappers. My colleague Megan buys us a couple of açaí-flavored popsicles from a kiosk. The fenced-in lot attached to the station is guarded by three UPP officers carrying machine guns. Megan and I mill about awkwardly.

The sun is close to setting by the time we return down the line during rush hour. We watch a stream of commuters coming from the opposite direction alight at the final station, some wearing uniforms or carrying briefcases. A few vendors transport wares and vegetables. Residents of Alemão get free passes, once up and once down the steep hills each day. The gondola has made transportation much faster and easier than the lengthy ride along switchback roads. Most locals appreciate efficient public transportation.

But it comes at a price. We are the price—a carousel of strangers rotating above people’s homes and lives, tourists watching and photographing with zoom lenses through gondola windows.

Some officials suggest that by lifting travelers off the ground, this gondola system will help to circumvent the ethical gray areas of favela tourism, where foreigners’ concern for injustice can quickly blur into transient curiosity, even voyeurism. Yet perhaps the teleférico is not a solution to the problem of poverty-gazing, but instead a novel part of its circuitry. From the cable car’s height, the trash in alleyways and open pits below has no stench or health effects. Instead it appears as a mosaic of debris, bright with colorful plastics and glinting metals like in a Gustav Klimt painting. Sometimes the scene below can be uncomfortably intimate, as a panorama of favela life glides by: a toddler flying a kite while two men drink beers on plastic chairs; a woman hanging laundry on a rooftop, four blue soccer jerseys (same team, different numbers) drying on a line; two police cars stopped side-by-side with their red lights flashing between crumbled buildings connected by a labyrinth of stairs. Only a watchful alien graffitied on a wall below stares back. He points up beyond the passing cars. The inversion is striking: If the alien is an insider at home on the bricks of a rooftop, terrestrial and domesticated, then which kind of skyborne strangers—traveling in what sort of craft—are we?

More than 1.6 million tourists already visit Rio each year, and a massive tide of additional foreigners will converge here for the World Cup and the Olympics. Rio’s legendary attractions, such as the cliffs of Sugarloaf Mountain and the Corcovado Cristo, have long featured tramways and bondinho cable cars. Yet in this case, it is not oceanic geology or statuesque panoramas but local Brazilians who are the attraction—their poverty and its architecture, favela “culture.” The gondola enables a virtual trick, allowing us to be both near and far at once: poor people’s lives can be seen close up through a camera lens, yet at such a safe distance that visitors need not speak to residents or awkwardly ask to take their picture. There is no risk of encounters with people who want something back. One Rio socialite tells me that an increasing number of middle- and upper-class Brazilians, socially conscious and interested in learning more about the poor of their country but also concerned about safety, are now visiting favelas for the first time via the teleférico. Somewhere between technologies of tourism, security, and transportation, this system’s moving parts wire a new horizon.

Many of the recent public works projects around Rio have been life-giving for local citizens. Among them are high-quality clinics, better schools, and reliable bus lines. Yet alongside these improvements “other public projects make no sense,” to quote a recent New York Times article on Providência, widely considered Rio’s first favela. Residents there recently won a legal injunction against a cable-car system modeled on the one in Alemão, which they did not want. In Providência, locals were consulted and requested paved roads, improved sanitation systems, and cleaner streets. But funding priority instead went to a $38 million teleférico and “culture center,” the construction of which would displace an estimated 670 families.

Complicated questions dangle with us in mid-air: Olympic and World Cup money brings blitzkrieg development as nations reimagine their urban terrains, but what kind of development will result? Who will decide and who will be accountable for it? Scholars identify such entangled aesthetic, infrastructural, and ethical questions as part of the global phenomenon of Olympic urbanism, whereby local landscapes are remade and people displaced in order to build spectacular projects or implement other neoliberal reforms. In this sense, mega-events often materialize government wish lists. And they are used to justify controversial forms of policing.

Viewed from this perspective, what kind of populations are constructed by the routes and optics of a gondola line? Tourism is not just made secure by the new forms of police surveillance; police surveillance is also made more secure by the influx of tourists, whose need for protection bolsters existing rationales for the UPP’s militarized presence. Each helps to make the other possible. Rio police have started testing drone aircraft to monitor favelas, though in much of Alemão the gondola already offers an aerial gaze. The teleférico’s surveillance potential is inseparable from its other functions: equal parts iconic machine of state reform and floating panopticon, local public service and global tourist mega-experiment.

As we approach the terminal, gondolas stretch ahead of us, lit by the setting sun’s glare. I squint at the shiny red booths, but through the tinted glass I can’t distinguish locals commuting from camera-ready outsiders, or from empty cars in the distance circulating down the line. When, a short while later, I step off at the station with no small amount of vertigo, I don’t feel like I am disembarking from a mass transportation vehicle. Instead it seems I have just visited a new kind of urban museum, where visitors rather than artifacts remain inside the glass case.