CUBATÃO — Twice a week, Mariana Salgado drives past a concrete wall that was erected on both sides of the Rodovia dos Imigrantes ("Immigrants' Highway") near Cubatão, a city in São Paulo state. And whenever she approaches the 58.5-kilometer marker, she becomes nervous, afraid that somebody might suddenly appear on the road, weapon in hand.

"I haven't the slightest idea what's on the other side of this wall," says the 39-year-old dentist. Mariana lives in Santos, in the southern part of the state, but drives north to a practice in the city of São Paulo on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. "All I know is that two friends of mine were assaulted there."

Every week, hundreds of thousands of middle-class Paulistas head south from the city to the coast via the Rodovia dos Imigrantes. And like Mariana, they have no idea of what's hiding behind the three-meter high, 25-centimeter thick and one-kilometer long concrete wall, built in May 2016 by the construction firm Ecovias.

We're in the 21st century and they've built an apartheid wall to isolate the poor.

The wall separates the Paulistas — who are the majority of those driving on the highway — from the 25,000 inhabitants of Vila Esperança ("Hope City"), where 12% of the population doesn't have any income (three times more than the national average), 14% are on minimum wage, and everyone dumps their wastewater into a river that flows into the ocean.

Along that one-kilometer stretch, there were seven assaults reported in 2015, one assault and one car-theft in 2016, as well one assault and one failed assault this year. The wall's purpose, according to Ecovias, is to "improve public security on the highway."

"Wall of shame"

The infrastructure company spent 14.4 million reais ($4.6 million) on the wall, new lights and security cameras. But while some appreciate the effort, others say the money was misdirected. "They should have invested the money in housing, water and sanitation for the community," says Ademário Oliveira, the mayor of the nearby city of Cubatão. "We're in the 21st century and they've built an apartheid wall to isolate the poor."

Police operation near the Vila Esperança wall — Photo: Cubatao Agora Facebook page

The project took the inhabitants in the destitute, drug-infested favela by surprise. Nobody had warned them that a wall was going to be built, and construction began from one day to the next. "This wall is to protect tourists, right? But what about us?" asks 54-year-old Luzia Gonçalves da Silva. She says that the wall only gets in ordinary people's way.

Luzia used to sell water, cold drinks, biscuits and snacks on the roadside. Before the wall was built, she could see the traffic on the highway from her window, and the sight of the smallest traffic jam would bring her joy, as well as some business. But with the wall, she can't even access the highway now.

In Vila Esperança, only 24% have finished middle school.

"When they don't know what to do, they just build a wall and they think they've solved the problem," says Sebastião Ribeiro. "it's a wall of shame," he adds. "Twenty-five thousand people end up paying for the actions of a few."

Vila Esperança took shape starting in 1972, when the Rodovia dos Imigrantes was being built. Some of the road workers built shacks or stilt houses amid the mangroves, in an environmental protection area. Sebastião moved in from the northern state of Maranhão in 1980, with his mother and six brothers. In the 1990s, the population in the favela shot up with the economic crisis, as many lost their jobs in the industrial sector.

Graffiti artist at work on the Vila Esperança wall — Photo: Renans via Instagram

Sebastião grew up selling water and sodas on the Rodovia dos Imigrantes with his mother. He went on to study law a few years ago and he's now the main community leader in Vila Esperança, as well as the manager of a social assistance program in Cubatão. Sebastião also founded an NGO that exchanges recyclable material for a local currency called "mangue," which can be used in local shops.

Prison or death

But for the vast majority of the population, which nurtures no hope of ever being able to leave the favela, the wall brings little to no difference to a daily life of misery. In Vila Esperança, only 24% have finished middle school. Carlos Alexandre Vieira de Lima, 23, didn't go further than fifth grade. He used to find small jobs here and there, mostly in construction or on market squares, but now even those are hard to come by, which means he struggles to pay the pension for his three-year-old son.

Damn it, how am I going to get any money now? Do I have to steal?

"I was 16 when I started going down the wrong path," he says. "Trafficking and drugs, it only leads to two places: prison or death. I don't want any of these options."

But on the poor side of the wall, opportunities are scarce. Carlos' mother, who spent three years in jail for attempting to kill his alcoholic father, is addicted to crack. So is his sister, who's also a prostitute. As for their father, he's in prison for murder and hasn't seen Carlos in 15 years.

In Vila Esperança — Photo: Carlos Vasconcelos via Instagram

"You wake up and you think: 'Damn it, how am I going to get any money now? Do I have to steal? What am I gonna do?' I can't deny it, I do think about stealing. But I know that if I did it, I might or might not be coming back home." Carlos says he doesn't want to succumb to the "wrong way of life." But the temptation to do so is great. "You can make some good money in the wrong way of life, bro."

On May 27, 2016, an attempted robbery on the Rodovia dos Imigrantes ended with the death of a 17-year-old student, Reinaldo Lima de Souza, who was hit in the face by a stone after it had been thrown through his car's windshield. The concrete wall was already there at that point, isolating Vila Esperança. But it didn't save Reinaldo's life.

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