Having successfully weathered the global recession, Brazil looks unstoppable. But despite its successes, including moving ahead of Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy, challenges - like youth violence - remain.
Murder rates in Brazil are among the world's highest. Just last month, an annual study - O Mapa da Violencia, undertaken by the Latin American School of Social Sciences - reported that the homicide rate against young people under the age of 19 had risen by 346 percent over the last 30 years. So what's causing this epidemic of youth violence?
About 30 kilometers (20 miles) away from the picture-postcard views of Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana and Ipanema beaches lies Favela Accari, a sprawling slum which is home to some 50,000 people.
Walking through, it's impossible not to notice the impact of illicit drug dealing on the community. Young men with assault rifles stand guard at strategic points, awaiting instructions broadcast over crackling walkie-talkies. The walls are marked with the initials TCP, or Third Pure Command, one of Rio's three main drug-trafficking gangs.
Few other options
Vanderlay da Cunha has lived in Favela Accari for 37 years, where he works with the neighborhood's young people. He says the drug trade has exploded in Accari and other similar communities.
"About 30 years ago, things were different," explains da Cunha. Drug dealing was a way for people to supplement their incomes. But now, the transformation of drug trafficking into an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Rio alone has come about in parallel with the rise of the economy, de Cunha said.
Da Cunha points out that today, the logic of the drug trade is to maximize profits, and it doesn't matter how many lives are lost along the way. "No one gets into this for long-term gain," he said, "but they stay because they have few other options. No skills or training."
In January, Brazil overtook Britain to become the world's sixth-largest economy. But this success masks some far more unpleasant statistics. Out of 91 countries surveyed in the School of Social Science's study, Brazil ranked 4th highest in terms of youth homicide, behind only El Salvador, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago.
As a youth worker, da Cunha is all too familiar with the problem.
"Many of these young deaths will be as a direct consequence of the drug trade; particularly people who are victims of violence in the wars between different gangs and the police," he said. But he also pointed out that there were other, related factors to consider, such as prison deaths. "The real number of deaths will be far higher, since the majority of the dead are the poor, the marginalized and the unregistered," he noted.
Rio police frequently raid the slums looking for drug dealers and gang leaders
As da Cunha explained, many of Brazil's homicide victims over the last 30 years have met their deaths not only in clashes with rival gangs, but also at the hands of the country's notoriously violent and corrupt police force.
Rio's police have been criticized by human rights groups such as Amnesty International for their use of arbitrary and extrajudicial violence.
Recently, the city commemorated the 1993 Candelaria massacre, in which police opened fire on a group of homeless children in downtown Rio, killing eight young people between the ages of 11 and 20.
Wesley Delrioblack, a journalist who lives in Favela Accari, said the high levels of violence in Rio have affected him directly. He said he was beaten by the police at the age of 14 after they accused him of being a thief. Two of his brothers were killed when they were young; one by a policeman, another by an extermination squad. He explained that these squads were made up of people paid by local businesses to maintain order, to make sure people didn't steal or cause trouble.
Survival is a day-to-day affair for families living in Brazilian favelas
Despite its recent economic success, Brazil has a wide gap between rich and poor. Out of all the G20 countries, it is second only to South Africa in this respect.
Franceline Cardaso, an activist who organizes cultural events in slum communities, maintains that there is a link between violent crime and development levels.
"Brazil was built with violence; first, with the killing of indigenous populations, and then with the transatlantic slave trade. Today, a strong division of inequality and violence is used to keep order and keep the population under control," she thinks.
One of the most controversial theories expressed by the author of the Mapa do Violencia study, Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, is that violence against young people in Brazil has been normalized.
Da Cunha agrees.
"A combination of the media and government policy has resulted in the belief that a young man who works as a drug dealer in a favela is no longer just a young person who is marginalized and poor, he's a terrorist and an enemy of the state," da Cunha said, adding that this "is then internalized by the population of the favela."
Some of those in the slums of Rio will leave the drug trade of their own accord. Some will rise in its ranks. Others will end up in prison, or shot dead by the police, or rival gangs. All people of the favelas have yet to see the benefits of Brazil's economic boom.