Felipe Dana / AP
Policemen from Brazil's Pacifying Police Unit patrol the poor Varginha favela ahead of Pope Francis visit on Thursday.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Just a short ride away from Rio’s legendary beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are some of the most crime-ridden slums in Latin America. Known here as favelas, they are equally legendary, but for all the wrong reasons. Pockets of relentless poverty, drugs and weapons flood streets dotted with ramshackle buildings.
Pope Francis will step into one of these neighborhoods, Varginha, in the larger Manguinhos favela, on Thursday.
Little seems to faze Pope Francis. The throngs of well-wishers who mobbed his car, overwhelming his security detail on Monday just seemed to make him smile even more broadly. And visiting Varginha's mean streets likely won't faze him either.
As the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis regularly visited the poorest, most dangerous areas of that city, and he specifically asked that Varginha be added to his schedule. An estimated 1.2 million people, or 22 percent of Rio’s population, live in favelas.
Varginha is known locally as the "Gaza Strip" for its spiraling violence between rival drug gangs. The area was recently "pacified" by police – a policy of flooding the area with heavily armed officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, to form a visible presence to disrupt and disperse criminal activity.
Officers wearing bulletproof vests patrolled the streets during a recent visit, keeping a watchful eye on the cramped apartment windows above.
The pontiff is making his first visit overseas since he was elected in March. An estimated 2 million people are expected to greet him.
But the effort has not been entirely successful - far from it. A pitched gun battle erupted between rival gangs here just last month.
Paulo Lima, 58, a carpenter, who like most here barely ekes out a living, would like to see more police action.
"Police pacification brought some peace here, but it's not enough for us. We need much more," he said. "There is no state presence; our community was forgotten for a long time. I hope with the pope's visit we can have some improvement."
While there have been some cosmetic improvements ahead of the pope’s visit – such as paved sidewalks and the removal of trash – there is still room for much more in terms of sanitation, health care and education. A fetid river runs behind the small cinderblock church Francis will visit.
Pope Francis heads to Brazil for World Youth Day where more than one million young people are expected to gather. The high cost of the trip to the Brazilian government has stoked fears that the event will be marked by protests. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.
When it rains, the sewage-ridden waters flood the neighborhood’s streets, carrying life-threatening diseases that sicken the area's children. A new sewage system was promised, but as it often happens here, improvements have yet to arrive.
Ranger Silva, a 24-year-old student, has heard it all before. "People here are still skeptical. We need to see these changes lasting, and not only because the pope is coming."
As the Vatican's first Jesuit leader who called for a “church of the poor," the simplicity of the Capela Sao Jeronimo church Francis will visit is fitting. It's a small chapel nestled inside a box-like structure and has only 18 simple wooden pews inside. Francis is expected to speak with residents and give a blessing.
Francis' effort to reach out to the poor during his visit has been welcomed by many Brazilians - particularly in the wake of massive anti-government protests across the country last month over corruption and the run-away costs of next year’s soccer World Cup.
There were a few signs of progress and hope in Varginha. Boys in brand new team jerseys played soccer on the field where the pope will address the community – their dazzling, effortless skills would be the envy of any American suburban youth coach.
And the sounds of a rock band filtered out of the little church Francis will visit.
Anderson Braz, 19, expertly strummed his electric guitar, as the group rehearsed their upcoming performance for the pope.
"I'm nervous now," he said. "Imagine on the day – it will be pure heart, pure emotion."