RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The debutantes' frothy dresses of tulle and satin were spot-on, their make-up flawless and their hair sculpted into gravity-defying styles thanks to copious amounts of product.
But the young women who made their coming out Thursday night in a lavish Rio de Janeiro ceremony were not society girls, but rather 15-year-olds from three dozen of the city's "favela" slums, escorted by police officers who patrol their communities.
The event marked the five-year anniversary of the pacifying police units, battalions that have re-conquered slums ruled for decades by ruthless, drug-dealing gangs. Uniformed officers gingerly held the debutantes' hands as the girls paraded in their evening finest, their elaborate up-'dos topped by glittering rhinestone tiaras.
Unused to such attention, some girls smiled nervously, while others wore stony, almost grim looks as their families cheered raucously and professional photographers and TV cameras raced to get close-ups.
Tears streamed down the faces of several debutantes and many of their mothers, sisters and friends. Beauty pageant air kisses were blown; thousands of cell phone photos were snapped. All of the debutantes turned 15 this year, but few had the means to celebrate the milestone with one of the lavish blowouts that are de rigueur among wealthier Brazilians.
"I didn't get to have a 15th birthday party because of my parents' financial circumstances, so this is a dream come true for me," gushed Lorena da Silva, abuzz with the adrenaline of a waltz with an officer serving in the Turano favela where she lives. "I was so nervous I couldn't believe it was still happening."
She and the other girls were chosen for essays they wrote describing how life had changed since the police set up shop in their communities. The pacifying units are key to the Rio state government's strategy for lowering crime in this violent city before it plays host to next year's soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games. But their record is mixed. Widely praised for having made many communities safer and more livable, they've also been criticized for alleged corruption and hard-handed tactics.
The recent case of a bricklayer who was tortured and killed by police in Rio's sprawling Rocinha slum has been widely seen as emblematic of abuses committed in some police units. But officials insist that units now headquartered in 36 Rio slums benefit local residents overall.
"There are many more positive aspects than negative ones," Jose Mariano Beltrame, head of Rio state security told journalists at Thursday's ball, where he danced with dozens of the debutantes. "Seven or eight years ago, an event like this one would have been unthinkable."
The ball, which relied on volunteers who coiffed and made up the girls and a formal wear shop that loaned the dresses, helped build goodwill between pacified favelas' residents and the officers who patrol them.
Liane Bispo da Silva, the mother of one of the debutantes, gave the police unit in her Adeus slum a mixed review, saying "it brought some quote unquote security." But she gave two thumbs up to Thursday's event.
"It's so wonderful that my daughter gets to have this special day," said 35-year-old Silva, who sported a form-fitting gold gown embellished with sequins. "I never got to have a 15th birthday bash because my parents couldn't afford it either, so I almost feel like we're both celebrating together."