Members of the BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) during an  exercise in a densely populated urban area in the Tavares favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Members of the BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) during an exercise in a densely populated urban area in the Tavares favela in Rio de Janeiro.Cedric Gerbehaye—Vu
Members of the BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) during an  exercise in a densely populated urban area in the Tavares favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Daily life in the Vidigal favela. Since 2008, authorities have regained control of approximately 38 of some thousand favelas of Rio de Janeiro by posting a new police force called UPP (Pacifying Police Unit), responsible for resolving violence and drug related problems.
Corporal Cruz of BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) during an exercise in a densely populated urban area in the Tavares favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Daily life in the Babilonia favela, at the end of the large beach of Copacabana, on the heights of Leme in Rio de Janeiro. Of a total of 1,000 favelas, it is one of 38 that has been pacified.
Members of the Battalion of Special Police Officers (BOPE) before leaving for a mission in their armored vehicle.
Anti-terrorism exercise in tubular structures (metro, trains,É) by members of BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) in a subway train at Esta�ao station in Rio de Janeiro. The BOPE members have been trained by members of the French RAID.
Members of BOPE (Battallion of Special Police Operations) attend a final briefing before going on an operation in one of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Helicopter flight over Rio de Janeiro during an exercice in anticipation of the Olympic Games.
Start of the day for a member of BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations). He will be on duty for 24 hours.
Training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the members of BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations).
Daily life in the Vidigal favela. Since 2008, the authorities in Rio de Janeiro have regained control of approximately 38 of some thousand favelas with a new police force, UPP (Pacifying Police Unit), responsible for resolving violence and drug related problems.
Back in their camp after an operation, members of BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) get in contact  with their families.
View from the Leblon and Ipanema beaches from the Vidigal favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Members of the BOPE (Battalion of Special Police Operations) during an exercise in a densely populated urban area in th
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Cedric Gerbehaye—Vu
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Inside Rio's Elite Police Force

Aug 11, 2016

It took six months. Emails requesting access were either ignored or put off by police officials. With help from local journalists, the pursuit continued. It had been nearly eight years since a journalist had been given access to the Special Operations Battalion of Police, or BOPE, in Rio de Janeiro but Cédric Gerbehaye waited patiently.

“It’s part of the task as journalists,” he tells TIME. “If we don’t have that patience or wisdom, we never get the access we want to build for these stories.”

And then on a Tuesday in June, officials gave the Belgium photographer permission to attend a BOPE exercise in the subway system, highlighting their counterterrorism preparedness before the 2016 Summer Olympics. The made-for-television event was to be held the following Thursday, so he boarded the next plane from his home in Brussels to Rio.

The story Gerbehaye sought, along with a writer for the French magazine Le Figaro, was larger than the city’s Olympic emergency contingency. According to Human Rights Watch, 569 people died at the hands of on-duty police officers in Rio between January and October 2015, the highest rate in Brazil. During Gerbehaye's 10-day trip, 20 gunmen stormed the state’s largest public hospital and successfully retrieved a drug kingpin held there, leaving one dead and two injured. The level of violence displayed by both sides has no end in sight but the pain is most widely felt in Rio’s poor, underserved neighborhoods called favelas. It was the daily struggle of life there that most interested him and became an important part of his photo essay.

Gerbehaye convinced the BOPE to expand his access – he photographed additional training exercises like aerial trips in the unit’s new helicopter and progression walks on the streets with officers wielding big semi-automatic rifles. In his downtime, he explored the dense, crowded favelas with his small camera and the help of a local translator. Tangled electrical wires hung from homes and poles like vines in a jungle and untended waterspouts trickled into the narrow alleys. Although these neighborhoods are where the BOPE and drug traffickers clash, Gerbehaye rarely felt unsafe. “People want you to think the danger is concentrated to one place but it’s at some peak moments that there is danger,” says Gerbehaye, referring to these moments when the BOPE and traffickers clash.

“When they arrive with an armored vehicle, heavily armed, people are afraid,” says Gerbehaye. “Some of the BOPE consider themselves on a mission and everything should be open to them.”

A photographer does not have that luxury of access. Gerbehaye’s time in the favelas was important because it showed him a different perspective than one portrayed by police officials and media reports. It revealed another layer to the story. Like his other work, including documenting conflict in Congo and South Sudan, and even the way of life in his own country, the story of Rio requires long-term, nuanced exposure. Until then, he will wait.

Cedric Gerbehaye is a photographer based in Belgium. He is represented by Agence Vu.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Photo Editor.

Michael Bucher is a contributor to TIME LightBox.

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