After surviving a kidnapping to take charge in Rio's toughest favela, police chief tells fans: Don't be afraid By Donna Bowater in Rio de Janeiro From her office in a painted shipping container high up in Rio de Janeiro's biggest favela, the woman with the toughest police job in the city has a definitive view of the divided landscape. In the foreground, creeping precariously up the hillside, are the raw clay-coloured shanty homes of Rocinha, where more than 100,000 people live.
And half a mile away at the foot of the hill is the urban sprawl of Sao Conrado, the upmarket beach neighbourhood that is expected to host the England team at the Royal Tulip hotel for next year's World Cup. It is a picture postcard of the social divisions that define Rio: gang members from Rocinha invaded the five-star hotel during a stand-off with armed police in 2010.
For Major Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo, 35, providing security for the England team and fans at the tournament represents just the latest challenge in a 15-year career that has included surviving a kidnapping and pioneering the city's "pacification" programme - designed to restore law and order to Rio's poorest, most violent and crime-ridden neighbourhoods.
The affable Major Pricilla - as she is almost universally known - is astute and bright despite starting work at 6am and often staying until late into the evening. The experienced military police officer has a humility and steadfastness about her as she speaks carefully, qualities honed by working in delicate situations. Parachuted into Rocinha by the authorities last month in a personnel shake-up, Major Pricilla was appointed commander of the favela's Police Pacification Unit (UPP) in the hope that she would be able to ease recent tensions and work with residents to improve conditions.
With the England team likely to be staying in the shadow of the community, Major Pricilla and the 700 officers under her command will be under pressure to maintain order ahead of the World Cup. "It's important that the community doesn't see the police as the enemy," she said, speaking outside the UPP base. "This isn't just in Rocinha but in every favela. "Living in close quarters with crime, people begin to think that it's normal. They live in a different reality."
The Rio de Janeiro native, or "Carioca", laughed off the idea that security in and around the favela would need reinforcing for England's presence during the World Cup. "Whenever a national team goes to a different place, then arrangements are made for them," she said. "Here, it's not going to be any different. Will we need extra resources here because of them?" she shrugged and smiled wryly.
"Only if they want to stay in Rocinha." The 2010 siege made headlines when the Royal Tulip, then the Intercontinental Hotel, was taken over for three hours by gunmen from Rocinha, but since then Rio's largest favela has been officially "pacified". That process involved armed raids and occupations before installing dedicated police units to replace gang control with state security. Yet, according to Brazil's Institute of Public Security, crime levels increased in the area around Sao Conrado in the year after Rocinha was pacified, with 18 murders - up from 12 the year before.
Eleven killings took place inside Rocinha, including the murder of two policemen, as gangs sought to win back control. And as recently as last month, federal police smashed an international arms trafficking ring that smuggled rifles to Rio's favelas, mainly Rocinha and nearby Vidigal, hidden in mattresses imported via the US. It was estimated that the gang brought at least 500 7.62mm rifles into Rio in the past two years. Asked whether drug gangs were still working in Rocinha, Major Pricilla replied with unapologetic frankness. "Of course. Where don't they operate?" she said.
"But without doubt, we will beat them in time. We have to fight it over time. We have to show the community that life without trafficking is better." It is widely accepted that the pacification programme cannot eradicate the problem of drug crime. But the process is designed to improve public security by reducing the power of the gangs that control the community. Winning the battle for trust may be the toughest challenge Major Pricilla faces, particularly after the high-profile case of a bricklayer, Amarildo de Souza, who went missing from Rocinha in July after being questioned by UPP police.
The father of six was allegedly tortured by officers seeking information on drug dealers. His body is yet to be found but a former commander, Maj Edson Santos, whose place has now been taken by Major Pricilla, is among several officers who have been charged with de Souza's torture and death. The case prompted widespread protests across social media and celebrity-backed campaigns for justice for the man's family. It has put the activities of the UPP under the spotlight - extra-judicial killings have long been the dark underbelly of Rio's police force.
"The only thing I can say is the investigation is being carried out with utmost rigour," said Major Pricilla. "I hope that it will be resolved quickly so we can get on with our work. We are already making changes, many changes in the way we police. "We're bringing in some people to the UPP, some people are leaving the UPP. We can't make drastic changes but little ones within the force."
There can be few police officers better placed than Major Pricilla to engage the community, and not just because of her lively demeanour. In 2007, the then 29-year-old police captain was herself a victim of a "flash kidnapping", a short abduction that aims to extort money or valuables. In most cases, criminals force victims to withdraw cash from an ATM but some cases turn into full-blown hostage situations.
Major Pricilla, usually confident and articulate, looks away briefly and hesitates when asked to recall how she was kidnapped and taken to a favela on the far side of Rio where she was punched and kicked repeatedly by seven men. She did not want to elaborate on how she failed in a first attempt to escape, was locked with hands bound in the boot of her car and eventually managed to flee a few hours later while the gang was distracted.
Police said the motive for her kidnapping was the theft of her car and holding her to ransom. Her survival was owed in part to the fact the kidnappers did not discover that she was a police officer - somehow overlooking the folded uniform in the boot of her car - which would have meant an almost certain death. Despite needing hospital treatment, she not only returned to work the following day but also saw three of the men arrested. She was happier to talk about this.
"Thank the Lord, I was able to go back to work the next day," she said. "I wanted to get them, and I got them. It was the best day of my life. "And that experience, of knowing what it is to be a victim, really helps in my work. The community needs us more than we can imagine. Sometimes, people think that we support crime but it's not true." Not surprisingly she won plaudits within Brazil and from around the world for her bravery, including an international Women of Courage award. Invited on stage with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, she briefly allowed her emotions to overcome her normally stoical manner and had to wipe away tears.
"It was great to receive the award," she said, "and an honour to be with other strong women from other countries and other cultures that have encountered some difficulties." It was after surviving the kidnapping that Major Pricilla was asked to lead Rio's first UPP in Santa Marta favela. Five years on, it has been a success and that favela is now one of the safest in Rio. There has not been a murder there since 2007 when two people were killed, according to official figures. "I miss it a lot," she said. "The people there call me, they come here, it's nice.
Major Pricilla said she was well-received when she took over the UPP in the bigger Rocinha favela, where drug dealing is more rife. Asked how she found it to work with hundreds of men but just 15 women, she threw back her head with a smile and said emphatically: "It's wonderful, certainly. I've worked with a lot of men for 15 years. I like it a lot." Near the UPP base and Major Pricilla's office, children from the favela played a noisy game of football on a new artificial pitch. By next year, before the World Cup, security services in Rio aim to have 40 UPP units in favelas mainly in the southern zone of the city, where most tourists and fans are expected.
"I like football," she said. "The World Cup is well-anticipated here in our culture and in our country. Football is played best in Brazil. Here in the favela, it's no different. And anyone who is curious about favelas can come. There's no reason to avoid favelas. "What I hope for the community is that it trusts in our work. We have a lot to contribute to the lives of children here, so that they have different expectations, different parameters." And with the hint of a smirk, she added: "And maybe there's a chance I'll get to meet some of the players."