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RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The glamour of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival seemed a distant dream at the final practice session of the Paraiso de Alvorada (Dawn Paradise) samba group on a wet Sunday night.
Several hundred residents of the Alemao slum, which until late last year was a dangerous no-go zone in Rio's drug wars, danced and belted out samba songs on a borrowed sports court whose floor was soaked with rain and spilled beer.
A huge sound system sputtered regularly as it provided deafening back-up to the group's drummers, adding to the chaotic vibe but failing to dim the partiers' spirits.
Rio's slums are the birthplace of samba and as the city gears up for its annual pre-Lenten festival of excess starting Friday, thousands of slum residents are preparing to celebrate their first Carnival in decades free of the rule of drug traffickers.
Alemao, a long-neglected "favela" that troops invaded in November, was the biggest conquest yet in a series of occupations of slums that is aimed at improving Rio's security ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
Evandro Pereira de Souza, Dawn Paradise's 33-year-old president, said the occupation of the favela by more than 1,600 soldiers from Brazil's army had clearly improved the environment for samba lovers.
It wasn't that the gun-toting young traffickers used to interfere with the treasured traditions of Carnival and samba but the climate of conflict and the drug-fueled all-night Brazilian "funk" music parties they funded made life more difficult.
"Before, we had difficulty getting full practices because families were scared of getting caught in a confrontation or something. Now it's calmer," Souza said as several heavily armed soldiers from Brazil's parachute regiment looked on.
Rio's samba groups, or schools, have long had an ambiguous relationship with the drug gangs that have dominated slums for decades. The head of the percussion section of the famed Mangueira samba school was shot, decapitated and burned by suspected traffickers in 2004 and there have been frequent allegations of samba schools being funded by drug money.
"Believe me, it we had had any extra funding, we wouldn't be in the bottom league," joked Souza, referring to Dawn Paradise's status among Rio Carnival parades, which are a deadly serious competition as well as a colorful spectacle.
The occupying forces, who will be replaced by a long-term police occupation later this year, are far from being welcomed as conquering heroes by slum residents. Suspicion of authority, ingrained by years of brutal policing, is widespread and many residents are skeptical that the changes will last.
Still, a new bank machine and a 3-D cinema -- reportedly the world's first in a slum area -- near the samba practice court in Alemao are evidence of the rapid changes in the past few months.
"Every practice has been full this year. People used to hide but now they feel a lot more secure and are coming out," said Juliane Carvalho dos Santos, an 18-year-old dancer who until last year had never known any authority in her community other than the dominant drug gang.
Even the parade theme song, or "enredo," that Dawn Paradise hopes will win it promotion from the bottom league has been composed to reflect the recent changes. It tells the story of a visitor to the community who savors the view from a newly installed cable car system that connects its hilltops.
"From the cable car I saw my favela, of singular beauty colored by the sun," it goes.
Editing by Bill Trott