Vying for peace in Brazil’s real-life City of God

Americas Uncategorized

A special report from the centre of Rio’s ongoing drugs feud as police forces battle to stop all-out war.

High above Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo do Alemão slum, a police helicopter jitters in a brilliant blue sky, circling, hovering and occasionally descending when it spies something of interest.

On the ground, a 350-strong, heavily-armed police unit fights off the dizzying effects of another sweltering day to continue hunting for this city’s most wanted man.

Eduíno Eustáquio de Araújo, a 31-year-old drug trafficker also known as ‘Dudu’, is blamed by the authorities here for triggering a recent turf war in Rio’s largest slum, Rocinha, in which at least 12 people were killed.

Police believe Dudu is hiding somewhere in ‘Alemão’, a sprawling labyrinth of some 19 favelas or shantytowns in the city’s Northern Section.
More than a quarter of a million Brazilians live here in conditions far removed from the luxury beach-front hotels that flank them.

As the teams scour Rio’s chaotic suburban landscape, 1,300 more police officers maintain a virtual occupation of Rocinha and Vidigal – two favelas in the South Zone – fearful that further violence will erupt there.

The latest deadly re-enactment of Fernando Meirelles’ cinematic marvel about rival drugs gangs in another nearby favela – City of God – began in earnest on Good Friday.

A three-way battle broke out between police and rival drug traffickers when a faction within Rio’s largest drug gang – the Comando Vermelho or Red Command – led by Dudu tried to dethrone another ‘CV’ drug lord in Rocinha.

Rocinha’s 150,000 residents have been on a state of high alert since February, when former-kingpin Dudu, escaped from prison.

Looking to re-claim his R$50m-a-month (£10 million) drugs trade from newcomer boss, 26-year-old Luciano Barbosa da Silva or ‘Lulu’, Dudu began recruiting an army in the favelas of Rio’s North Zone.

Two months later, in the early hours of Good Friday, his team of rag-tag recruits launched an attempted invasion.

With the apparent go-ahead from the Red Command’s top man Fernandinho Beira-Mar or ‘Seaside Freddy’, a mob of about 60 tried in vain to capture Rocinha’s numerous ‘bocas’ – its drug dens, or literally ‘mouths’.

During the initial invasion three civilians were killed. But what shocked Rio most was the murder of Telma Veloso Pinto.

The 38-year-old mother was driving her family home along a busy road along the outside of the favela when Dudu’s soldiers tried to hijack her car for use in the invasion.

Pinto ignored their requests to stop so the men – armed with rifles – opened fired, killing her instantly with a shot to the head.

Over a thousand police officers moved in to occupy the community following the deaths.

On day six of the conflict, Lulu – and his accomplice Ronaldo Araújo Silva – were both killed at his luxury hill-top home by police special forces.

Rumours have since surfaced that the Red Command – the gang to which he belonged – had a hand in his killing.

There were violent scenes at Lulu’s burial on 15 April, attended by about 400 people. One reporter was injured when a rock was thrown from a first floor window, towards the entrance to the cemetery’s chapel.

“If you print my photo, you’re dead!” one of Lulu’s girlfriends screeched at photographers amidst the commotion.

Lulu himself had enjoyed a good reputation within his community, which is based in the mountains overlooking Rio’s glitzy beach districts.

Since he became ‘dono’ (boss) in 1999, the favela had lived a period of relative calm.

“Lulu had a sense of morality,” said a 51-year-old taxi-driver, who wished not to be identified.

“He respected everybody, and he didn’t let the gang mess with residents, or attack or rob them. That’s why he died.”

One former Red Command foot soldier went further: “Lulu wasn’t a drugs baron,” he said.

“He was a guy from the north-east who was in a shit situation. He came to Rio and gave money to people who didn’t have a penny. A good traficante helps his community, like Lulu.

“He had the support of everybody here,” the 21-year-old explained. He fondly recalled an occasion when Lulu robbed a delivery van from a television shop and distributed the contents to favela’s residents.

Traffickers in Rocinha have been quick to appoint Lulu’s successor: André da Costa Brito or Zazur. But his promotion could be short-lived.

Residents fear the imminent take over of the favela by the notorious Dudu, thought to be lying low on the other side of the town, plotting another invasion attempt.

“He’s a nasty piece of work," one resident said.

"One day he saw this tasty 14-year-old girl, so he picked her up and raped her. He doesn’t have scruples. Lulu was different,” they added.

One story here has it that Dudu feeds his enemies to his pet alligator.

Lulu’s fate was well known, but Rocinha’s prospects are much less certain.

“Rocinha’s future is now in the hands of God,” Residents’ Association president William de Oliveira proclaims.

Police sources indicate Rio’s second largest drugs gang – The Terceiro Comando or Third Command – might now be able to take control of Rocinha.

"If successful," one police source said, "the group would likely invade neighbouring favela Vidigal, previously used as a base by Dudu."

“There are two options here," the policeman continued.

“Either Dudu really will come back and take over and everything will go back to how it was before. Or Rocinha [under the Third Command] will attack Vidigal.”

“If you worked for a newspaper and there was a difference of opinions with your editor you’d go and work for another paper," he added.

"[Similarly] if the Red Command ordered the invasion of Rocinha then it’s going to pass to the others – the Third Command.

And [the Third Command] are crazy for this to happen. Then they’ll attack Vigidal.”

But this theory is played down by a source close to the Third Command leadership in the Complexo da Maré – the group of favelas from which some of Dudu’s soldiers have come from.

“The community would never allow it,” the source told me.

Perhaps the only certainty is that the outcome will be a violent one.

“It doesn’t matter if you get rid of Dudu and Lulu, because these people are disposable. They will die and others will spring up straight away,” said Marcelo Freixo, of human rights group Global Justice.

Rocinha, founded in 1929, takes its name from the hilltop allotments (‘rocinhas’) where residents grow vegetables to sell at market.

Much of its population is made up of immigrants from the impoverished north-east, who helped construct the city’s more affluent Southern Zone in the 1940s and 50s.

Today the favela still provides much of the workforce for the city’s wealthy. Early risers and nighthawks can witness Rochinha’s human tide of maids and porters, bracing the favela’s steep alleyways as they go to and return from work.

Recognised as a ‘bairro’ (borough) by the city since 1992 – Rocinha has been hailed as a model for Rio’s other favelas.

Yet huge social problems still exist here. According to a recent study, Rocinha’s residents have the fourth lowest income in Rio at R$434 (£90) per month. Just two per cent of its residents completed secondary school.

The police – all too wary of heavily-armed traffickers – man just two small posts here, both on the Estrada da Gávea – a road that slices Rochinha’s central patchwork of concrete shacks in two, before snaking to the upper reaches of the favela and up further to the mansions and swimming pools of Gávea.

Cocaine is sold freely in designated areas and it is common to see teenagers toting rifles and machine guns just yards from police posts.

Yet despite the absence of the city’s authorities, most crime is rare. For decades drugs traffickers have imposed their own brutal set of laws.

First time offences, like robbery, are punished with beatings. For rapists and murderers the so-called ‘movimento’ (movement) operates a deadly ‘one-strike and you’re out’ zero tolerance-style policy.

“You have to forget your morals,” said social worker and activist Yvonne Bezerra de Melo.

“When the government is not there, if a girl is raped what are you going to do? Solve it inside, because they have armed justice.”

Rocinha’s previous period of calm had even allowed it to enjoy a brief renaissance as a tourist trap.

Until the trouble last week, hundreds of overseas visitors were regularly visiting the area. Now the largest travel operator in the area, Favela Tour, has been forced to cancel its trips.

“There is no way I’m going to take tourists up there into a ‘bang-bang’,” said organiser, Marcelo Armstrong.

Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict’s proximity to Rio’s upper echelons – Rocinha sits between the wealthy boroughs of Gávea and São Conrado – has sent shockwaves through the better off sections of Brazilian society.

Social worker Bezerra de Melo says this is what has given the violence here its news angle.

“It’s only such a big deal because Rocinha is in the south of the city. People only care about this kind of violence when it affects the rich,” she said.

Elsewhere, it is as commonplace as it is ignored. De Melo described shootouts she had witnessed in the Baixa do Sapateiro slum where she works.

“It’s not exactly war like in Iraq but there is a kind of civil war inside the slums,” she explained. "Many of the buildings in streets around the projects are pockmarked by machine gun fire."

Violence is endemic here, as government figures released last week show.

Rio – a city where 10 per cent of the population live in favelas – now has the highest rate of gun-related deaths anywhere in the country.

Between 1980 and 2000, there were 600,000 murders in Brazil, compared to 350,000 during Angola’s 27 years of civil war.

The comparison with Angola doesn’t stop there. Last week police uncovered a stash of eight landmines and 161 hand-grenades in one of Rio’s 600 favelas.

Rio authorities had asked for 4,000 troops to be sent in to help quell this violence, but the federal government turned the request down, arguing the situation was now under control.

Two weeks after the shots that ignited violence across Rocinha were fired, the district is struggling to return to normal.

Schools, which closed during the conflict leaving 10,000 children without lessons, are now gradually re-opening. The shutters too are being lifted once more by local businesses.

Yet many fear the community’s reputation has been set back years by the battles. Others are convinced that the worst is still yet to come.

“At the moment it’s extremely tense,” says Marcelo Freixo of Global Justice. “And the truth is nobody knows what’s going to happen next.”