Sweltering in the Friday afternoon heat a 300-strong crowd are bringing carnival to a suburban graveyard in Rio’s west. The group is singing a samba. Their king – one of Rio’s most notorious drug traffickers – is dead, his body riddled with 12 bullets. Huddled around the grave the masses erupt into song, shouting: "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Escadinha is our king."
The assassination of a renowned Rio drugs lord throws Brazil’s tourism capital into further violence with some areas on a war footing.
"I’m very proud of him," bellows Rosemar Encina, the wife of the legendary Brazilian gangster. Outside five shots ring out in tribute to the man deferentially known as "Seu Zé" (Lord Zé).
Thirty-six hours earlier, José Carlos dos Reis Encina – better known as "Escadinha" or Stepladder – had been driving to work, on day release from prison. Without warning, a motorcycle swerved out in front of his silver Vectra, one of its riders unloading several rifle shots into the car. Within minutes a folk-hero of 20th-century Brazilian organised crime lay splayed out on the busy road in a pool of blood. Vulture-like onlookers surged around his corpse to get a view of the 49-year-old.
Like the semi-fictional traficante Zé Pequeno from the award-winning film City of God, Stepladder was at the head of Rio de Janeiro’s cocaine trade during the 1980s and was one of the masterminds behind Brazil’s largest drugs faction, the Comando Vermelho (Red Command). His death was the final chapter in an action-packed life.
He was thought to be behind a 1986 attempt to kidnap Princess Anne during a visit to Brazil. But Stepladder quite literally made his name with a breathtaking escape from the Ilha Grande prison, Rio’s answer to Alcatraz, on New Year’s Eve 1985. In broad daylight, a helicopter hijacked by Stepladder’s partner in crime, "Fatty", swooped down and scooped him up from the prison confines.
Hours later he was back at the helm of the cocaine trade in the Juramento slum. Flaunting his newfound freedom, Stepladder even took part in carnival processions that year – dressed as a voluptuous woman.
"He was always known for his adventurer’s spirit," said Carlinhos Costa, who was raised in the Rocinha slum at the height of Stepladder’s reign.
But on 23 September he wasn’t so lucky. Shot several times in the head at close range, Stepladder’s body was barely recognisable as it lay on the burning asphalt of Avenida Brasil. The king was dead.
The murder punctuates an explosive month in Rio’s 24/7 drug wars. Favelas (slums) across the city are erupting in violence that often matches the conflicts in Chechnya and Sudan for intensity, if not in headline-grabbing power.
With fierce turf wars igniting around Rio, many now fear the city is staring into the abyss. Rio de Janeiro has the highest rate of gun-related deaths in the country. Between 1980 and 2000 there were 600,000 murders in Brazil against 350,000 during Angola’s 27-year civil war. Earlier this year a stash of eight landmines and 161 hand grenades were discovered in the Coréia favela, in Rio’s west.
"No one really knows how many arms there are out there," conceded Benjamin Lessing, a disarmament expert in Rio.
Miles from the golden sands of Copacabana deadly conflicts are playing themselves out between youthful drug dealers with names worthy of cartoon characters, like "Dudu". A stone’s throw from the road that links Rio’s international airport with the world-famous Ipanema beach are some of the city’s most explosive slums. To locals the area has become known as "the Gaza Strip". Between 1987 and 2001 nearly 4,000 of Rio’s inhabitants met violent deaths compared with just 467 in the West Bank, an official war zone.
On the border between the Baixa do Sapateiro and Nova Holanda, two favelas that make up Brazil’s answer to Gaza, sits an empty school building. Its walls are riddled with bullet holes. On the next street, known locally as "Fogo Cruzado" (Cross Fire) because of frequent gun battles between rival factions, empty cartridges litter the floor.
"You never know when the shooting might start around here, or where it might come from," said Ayrton Ribeiro, a social worker in the area, crossing one of the area’s putrid sewage outlets, into which traffickers frequently dump bodies. "There is no future here." Since Stepladder’s era the traffickers have become increasingly ruthless.
Dudu, who tried to invade Rocinha earlier this year, is reputed to feed his opponents to a pet alligator. Other drug lords treat their enemies with similar brutality – forcing them to swim through open sewers or burning them in so-called microwaves, makeshift crematoriums made of car tyres. In 2002, an undercover journalist was hacked to death with a Samurai sword by a trafficker known as Elias Maluco (Crazy Elias).
With drug wars endemic across the city Rio society is running scared.
"Without doubt it’s getting worse, especially in Rio," said Carlinhos Costa, the co-ordinator of Security and Human Rights at the NGO Viva Rio.
"It’s OK for the foreigners who come here but we have to stay," added Fábio Ema, a graffiti artist and social worker who has contact with some of Rio’s most violent drug traffickers.
"If it carries on like this nobody is going to be able to leave their house. The favela can’t take anymore – it’s turning into Bogotá in Colombia," he said.
Even in Rio’s glitzy south zone the conflict is raging. Latin America’s largest shantytown Rocinha and its neighbour Vidigal are on a war footing, occupied by military police. Teenage foot soldiers patrol Vidigal’s tight alleyways, only too aware that come tomorrow they too might be laid out in the local morgue. Residents have been given a curfew of 7pm, and a force of 100 police are searching people entering and leaving the slum.
"The traffickers are going to invade because they want to take over the drug dens where the playboys go to spend their money," said a Vidigal resident, who didn’t want to be identified.
According to police £2m worth of cocaine is shifted each week in Rocinha. Since the murder of Rocinha’s kingpin, Lulu, earlier this year there has been a vicious power-struggle for control of the local drug trade.
"You never know when things might kick off again," said Carlos Teixeira, 28, who lives at the centre of Rocinha, a hot spot for clashes between police and drug traffickers. As he speaks, a team of police Special Forces file past, their rifles trained on the mishmash of redbrick housing that characterise Rio’s poor communities. According to the latest figures police in Rio killed 1,000 Brazilians during 2003, the majority young, black men.
Stepladder’s murder underlines the shift in values amongst Rio’s drug traffickers, which has sent the city into a downwards spiral of heavily-armed violence. Until the mid-1980s pistols were the standard kit amongst Rio’s traficantes. Now it is commonplace to see AR-15 rifles and Russian AK-47s touted on the alleys in many of Rio’s 600 favelas, which house 10 per cent of the city’s population.
Like all of Rio’s drug lords, Stepladder worked his way up from the bottom. He entered the drugs trade aged 16, when his father’s construction company went bust. Beginning as a fogueteiro (look-out), he worked his way up to be dono (boss) of the slum in the late 1970s. In an age of old-style gangster bosses, born and bred in the slums, he was a popular figure, who opened a crèche in the community called the "Prince of Peace".
"Escadinha was such a legendary figure it’s hard to distinguish the myths from the reality," said Costa.
Similar uncertainty surrounds the motive behind Stepladder’s assassination.
Some believe there was a dispute for the leadership of his taxi firm, Elite. Others claim it was a case of account settling by rival drug factions or the police.
"Nobody’s sure whether it was the Comando Vermelho (CV) or the Amigos dos Amigos [a rival faction] that killed him. But it seems like he was associating himself with a few different [drug] groups," said an ex-member of the Red Command, who wouldn’t be identified.
Escadinha’s family lived in the Morro do Juramento where the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) faction rules supreme. But recently police found two-way radios from his taxi company in the hands of a rival gang, the CV. Police suspect he had been sleeping with the enemy and was punished for his betrayal.
But as the samba peters out at the cemetery in Irajá, his wife remains adamant Stepladder had turned his back on crime. "He died because he was a man of his word. He said he wouldn’t go back into crime and he didn’t," she insists.
Sentenced to 51 years in prison for drug trafficking, the father-of-five turned to evangelical Christianity and even enjoyed a brief career as a hip-hop artist. In 1999, he recorded a track called "O Crime Nunca Mais" (Crime Never Again) with the rapper MV Bill from City of God.
But at the time of his death Stepladder was under investigation again for suspected links to the drugs trade.
He had his enemies, but he had many supporters too. As the slum’s chefão (kingpin) Stepladder looked after locals. The area’s name, Juramento or Vow, has roots in a pledge taken by its first donos to protect residents from assault or rape.
Times have changed. When Stepladder was Juramento’s top man in the 1970s the type of automatic rifle that killed him was virtually unheard of. Now the hilltop slums are awash with heavy artillery.
"I’ve known lots of these guys," said Fábio Ema. "They’re not crazy like people say, they sell drugs because they are against the system in which we are living.
"Society thinks that all you’ll find in the favelas are poor black people, who walk around barefoot. But you can’t even imagine how organised they are. They’ve got internet, radios, telephone… and their message is one a lot of people buy."
As violence levels soar and the state looks on helplessly, many of the city’s poor are faced with little option but to side with the traffickers.
"Traffickers give you a chance, the police don’t. The police come in [to the favela] all guns blazing. It might be a worker or a student, anyone," said Andrey Luiz Camara Gonçalves dos Santos, a resident of Jacarépagua in Rio’s west.
A one-time resident of City of God, Carlos Teixeira, agrees: "If you’re hungry you can go to the boca [drugs HQ] and they’ll give you something that you’ll never get at the Town Hall. Sometimes there’s just nobody who listens."
In Jardim Catarina – a suburb of São Gonçalo where Stepladder used to operate – the sentiments are similar. "I can’t get angry with the traffickers because they are the people and I can’t be angry with my own people," said Victor Hugo Freitas, 21. "Who am I going to support? The police, who I don’t know, or the traficante who is a childhood friend?" asked Freitas who is a respected rapper in Rio, known as "Funk".
Not everyone accepts the idea that today’s traffickers have the support of their communities – as Stepladder’s generation seem to have had. Costa said: "The phase of caring traffickers with respect for the community is getting more and more distant and more truculent.
"Nowadays these boys take over and don’t have any respect for the residents. The only thing they have is massive fire-power."
Escadinha was from a different generation. "In the old days the traffickers knew the suppliers and it was all much calmer," said Costa. The calm has since been shattered by an open-ended orgy of violence.
In the hills, high above the Juramento favela, a gun-salute rings out in memory of Stepladder’s death. It’s the day after his murder. At the slum’s foot a loudspeaker churns out "Meu Bom Juiz" (My Good Judge), the samba written by Bezerra da Silva in the 1980s as a tribute to his friend, Escadinha.
"This man is useful to us," praises one verse. "He is going to make our population stronger." Below, in Juramento’s back-alleys, the cocaine business goes on uninterrupted.
The cult of Stepladder spawned a host of musical tributes. Another track recorded in his honour featured the line: "Carry me in your memory. Because my future is death." It was a grim but fitting epitaph to his eventual demise and a reminder of how, for thousands of children and teenagers caught up in the drug trade, Rio de Janeiro is a city without a future.