March 09, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) As the bulldozers went to work yet again, tearing down another home in a contested slum on the edge of Rio de Janeiro's main Olympic Park, a huge cloud of dust enveloped the crumbling cinderblock shack next door.

Holed up inside the precarious one-room dwelling, Rafaela Santos, her husband and four children hoped desperately that the roof wouldn't cave in. Their one-month-old daughter began to cough, and a day later, she's still hacking.

The demolitions Tuesday were the latest carried out by the city authorities in Vila Autodromo, a community dating back to the 1960s that was once home to around 800 families but has now been largely leveled. Rio de Janeiro officials insist the removals are necessary to make room for an access route into the Olympic Park.

The fight over the slum's fate has played out in courts and the media for years, and the ongoing struggle by the remaining families has become a lightning rod for critics who allege the Olympics is being used as an excuse to push the poor off valuable real estate.

Once a thriving and peaceful fishing village built on the margins of Rio's old Formula One racecourse, Vila Autodromo is now a wasteland, with only a handful of cracked brick shacks dotted across the cratered and rubble-littered landscape. Nearly all the dozen or so standing buildings are covered with defiant graffiti attacking the city government or Mayor Eduardo Paes, who many residents say has trampled their rights.

Around 50 families still live amid the rubble, clinging to Paes' repeated promises to allow those who wish to remain to do so.

Santos has lived in Vila Autodromo her entire life, but fears her days there are numbered. She thinks her home might be the next one demolished.

''Living here has become a kind of torture,'' said the 28-year-old, speaking over the roar of a bulldozer shifting the concrete remains of her neighbor's home. ''The noise is constant. My baby can't sleep and my house is falling apart.''

Amid the demolitions, basic services have suffered. Santos said water and electricity supplies to her house are intermittent at best. Garbage collection is virtually non-existent. When it rains, as it does often during Brazil's hot, wet summer, water gathers in the pock-marked earth, providing ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. A few months ago, Santos's eldest daughter, nine-year-old Nayara, came down with dengue.

Santos said she's also experienced harsher tactics. Both she and her husband, Marcio Enrique Santos, say they've been roughed up by the municipal guards who often patrol the area. They've also received anonymous phone calls warning them to leave.

Still, Santos's roots here are strong, and despite everything, she says she wants to stay in the only community she's ever known.

''I want to stay but they've told me I can't,'' she said. ''They're negotiating in bad faith.''

City officials insist they've made every effort to resettle or provide compensation to those residents forced out, and the vast majority of those who once called Vila Autodromo home have left.

Initially the Santos family struck a deal that would have seen them moved to a nearby public housing project. But they got cold feet and backed out at the last minute. Now, city authorities are offering just 33,000 reais ($9,000) for their home.

''Where can I buy a house for that?'' she asked.

On Tuesday, hours after city workers tore down the home that had symbolized the community's four-year-long struggle, Mayor Paes unveiled in a news conference a plan to build 32 new homes in Vila Autodromo for those who wish to remain. Paes pledged the $950,000-project will be completed ahead of the Aug. 5-21 Olympics, though he provided few specifics.

''People who want to stay will stay,'' he told the gathered journalists, suggesting that residents would have to vacate the area during construction of the new homes. ''We are not going to make victims out of those who are not victims.''

But a day later, none of the remaining Vila Autodromo residents had seen the mayor's plan, and most expressed skepticism. They believe that Paes wants to completely clear out the slum in order to boost the real-estate value of the land. Much of the area around the Olympic Park is slated to become luxury apartment towers after the games.

Sandra Regina, who has spent 21 years in Vila Autodromo, said the plan sounded like one more pretext to get everyone out.

''He'll never let us come back if we leave,'' she said. ''Believing in Eduardo Paes is like believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.''

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