|Toro Magazine, September, 2004
SUN, SAND AND SEMI-AUTOMATICS
By SHAWN BLORE
Blocks from the beaches of Ipanema, a drug
war rages on the mean streets of Rio de Janeiro.
SHAWN BLORE reports from the world's most
dangerous tourist hotspot.
RIO DE JANEIRO -- On the last day of
2004, four people were killed in Rio
a couple shot to death during a home
a man fatally beaten and left by the
on the city¹s outskirts; and a cop,
in the face when his detachment came
attack by bandits unknown.
I learned all this over café com leite,
the morning papers in my new apartment
three blocks from the beach in Ipanema,
I have set upresidence with my Brazilian
wife. The stories merited no more than
fewinches each, and were placed on
of the page, deep in the city section,
around page nineteen.
There¹s a rule of thumb in Canadian media
culture: If it bleeds, it leads. Switch on
the 6 p.m. news from border towns such as
Rochester, N.Y., or Bellingham, WA, and you
discover that, in the U.S., the 'if-it-bleeds-it-leads'
credo is the iron-shod word of God. In Rio,
on the other hand, if it bleeds, you bury
it deep and hope it dies.
In the city of samba, only quirky crimes,
or those that directly threaten the wealthy
Zona Sul neighbourhoods, seem to make the
front pages: the gang that had taken to kidnapping
entire apartment towers; the reappearance
in Ipanema of bike-muggers, who prey on tourists
and escape by weaving their bikes through
traffic; the American oil executive and his
wife, murdered while they slept inside their
guarded waterfront condo.
Highly attuned journalist that I am, it took
me only four or five weeks of reading a death
notice a day to suspect I might be sitting
atop a story. I dug up some statistics: The
Rio de Janeiro state police force kills some
1,200 people per year, more than any other
in Brazil, more than any other I could find
anywhere in the world. The murder rate in
the city of Rio de Janeiro has, over the
past three years, hovered close to fifty
residents. That¹s more than in Northern Ireland;
more than Detroit or Washington, DC; more
than Moscow or Tashkent, or Tbilisi. More
even than the West Bank or Bogotį, capital
of the coke-trafficking republic of Colombia.
I was living in what was possibly the most
violent city in the world.
The odd thing was, it didn't feel like all
that violent a place. I wasn¹t finnding corpses
on my doorstep along with the milk and the
morning paper. People went about their business,
shopping, sipping coffee, exercising like
mad onthe beach.
True, everyone in Rio had a mugging story.
At Sunday beer-and-soccer barbecues, the
men gather to share tales of urban violence.
In contrast to Canada, in Rio nearly every
story sprang from personal experience: a
car-jacking, an ATM hold-up. Even having
your pants stolen on the beach qualifed you
as a speaker in the tales-of-urban-violence
After a few Sundays, however, I began to
note how often the anecdotes repeated. This
seemed to be not so much evidence of a violent
society as evidence of bit players who¹ve
read the master narrative, and want to play
On the other hand, if violence springs from
inequality, Rio is clearly fertile ground.
Even for a total newcomer, class differences
are easy tospot, in part thanks to the colour
coding: Ipanema's men, women, and girls are
indeed tall and tan, young and lovely, and
overwhelmingly Caucasian. People of darker
shades in Ipanema are either asleep on the
street orworking in the service trade, selling
juice, stocking shelves, or renting beach
chairs to tourists.
None of these jobs pays enough to cover
on even the most humble apartment.
As a result,
many of Rio¹s darker-skinned residents
out housing in favelas, communities
that cling to the sides of Rio's steep
mountains. For the most part, favelas
water and sewage systems, paved streets,
There was one at the end of my street, its
access steps 100 metres from my door. Every
morning when I went out to run, I would see
the beach-chair man, who lived somewhere
up the hillside, lugging down his stacks
of rentable folding chairs, little boys heading
down to the ocean with bodyboards, and women
trudging back up the hill with bags of groceries.
And then there were the favela residents
who never seemed to move. No matter
time I walked past the favela steps,
old men were always in the small patio
on the corner, while a twentysomething
in shorts and a halter top stood invariably
on the corner by a street lamp. The
few times I walked past, she offered
or heroin, or plain old Mary Jane.
declined. After a while she gave up
and would content herself with a friendly
This was a boca, one of Rio¹s self-designated
drug-distribution points. The woman on the
corner takes your order, traipses across
the street to the foot of the favela steps,
where small quantities are kept on hand,
then returns with your order. Periodically,
runners replenish the retail supply from
a larger store kept safely further up in
the favela. Hand-held radios are used to
warn the higher-ups of any approach by police.
As a backup, a team of young boys is kept
permanently at the ready near a bank of bottle
rockets,with orders to light them up at the
first sign of trouble.
Researching the Rio drug trade, I came across
an article that claimed a single boca could
bring in some R$200,000 (CND$100,000) every
single day. I found the assertion absurd.
A single papelote, or paper-twist, of coke
costs about R$10. Grossing 200k would mean
selling a papelote every four to five seconds
or so, twenty-four hours a day, seven days
a week. I had seen nowhere near that kind
The doorman of my apartment building set
me straight. Beginning at about 1 a.m., he
told me, and continuing until about 6 a.m.,
car after car after car pass down our street
en route to the boca. At busy times, there
were ten or twenty cars a minute. 'Don¹t
you hear them?'
As it turns out, I¹m a very sound sleeper.
One afternoon this March, I was in my home
office finishing a fluffy travel piece ('Romance
in Rio de Janeiro') when a movement outside
the window caught my eye. I leaned out and
looked up the street, where a squad of cops
stood in helmets and žak jackets, automatic
rižes pointed uphill at something in the
favela. Penha, our cleaning woman, was in
the apartment, soI asked her what was going
'Nćo sei,' she said. I don¹t know.
I grabbed my keys and camera, and took
down the stairs. Penha asked my wife
was crazy. No, just a journalist, she
Penha shook her head and clucked. Leading
my wife to the window, Penha pointed
a scattering of pockmarks on the outside
wall of the building by our window.
'A stray bullet has no address,' she
using an apparently common Rio expression
describing the way in which bullets
to hit everyone but those for whom
intended.Down on the street, I was
round a concrete wall like a kid playing
hide-and-go-seek, watching a dozen
assault rižes at the stairway zigzagging
up into the favela.
There was something filmic about the
a Matrix-style simulation žick with
of racial proŽling. I could see the
So too could another white pedestrian,
woman who came round the corner, did
then scurried from the scene as fast
high heels would allow. But to the
and brown residents of the favela,
were seemingly invisible. The favela
carried on up or down the hillside,
at each other, ignoring the men pointing
guns at their heads. The police stayed
place, weapons pointed, for a full
minutes.Then they downed their guns,
into a trio of SUVs, and drove off.
men were sipping beer on the corner.
what that had been about.
'Nćo sei,' they said. We dunno.
A few weeks later, on Good Friday,
early hours of the morning, a private
of sixty men in a convoy of stolen
out from a hillside shantytown overlooking
Ipanema to invade and conquer a second
favela nearby. The incident sparked
Holy Week of full-on urban warfare.
Its first victim was a scared middle-class
driver who tried to run a roadblock the gunmen
had set up on Rio¹s scenic coastal highway.
A bullet from an automatic weapon caught
her in the face. She was dead before her
SUV rammed the cliff.
Police intercepted the invading force
the border of their target neighbourhood,
Rocinha. The gunmen žed into enemy
initiating a three-way battle between
and gang and police. Two cops died
first day's Žghting, ambushed and machine-gunned
in an alleyway beside a garbage dump.
more people died, all innocent bystanders,
over the Saturday and Sunday.
In response, the Secretary of Public Security
for the state of Rio de Janeiro announced
he was sending in his own army, a strike
force of 1,200 heavily armed police that
would be deployed into the favela, beginning
Monday morning. That was the day I chose
to go to Rocinha.
It's a community frequently tagged
biggest shantytown in Latin America:
to 100,000 people and five very busy
The neighbourhood sprawls out from
once a scenic mountain parkway. There's
zoning, no land-use planning, no roads
the one, no closed sewers, no red tape,
government. It's a Margaret Thatcher
A dozen or so reporters had set up shop in
a café by the bus stop at Rocinha¹s border.
As a rule, the middle class in Rio do not
enter favelas. The press corps was no different.
None of the reporters I spoke to that day
had entered the favela, or had any plans
to do so.
Foolishly, perhaps, I shouldered my camera
and notepad and set forth to discover nothing
much. Here and there on the mountainside
road were squads of assault troops, standing
around in sixes and twelves with nothing
much to do. The real action, they said, was
in the forest up above the favela, where
soldiers and drug dealers were still doing
Around noon I stopped for a beer and pizza
at a restaurant about halfway up the hillside.
When the midday news came on, I watched the
reporters down at the café do live stand-ups
on the incredibly dangerous situation unfolding
inside the favela.
Tuesday morning I was at the café again.
Further up in the favela the police
to ground two alleged traŽcantes, killing
both in a short exchange of gunfirre.
dead bodies were being ferried away
arms dangling out from beneath rugs
had been hastily žung over the corpses.
Wednesday, the police finally located
killed Rocinha¹s drug chief, a twenty-six-year-old
trafficker named Lulu. Like a mafia
the drug chief is effectively king
community he rules, and since coming
in 1999, Lulu had ruled well, bringing
calm, and a measure of security to
All over Rocinha the shutters on the
fronts began to roll down, as the neighbourhood
closed in respect for the fallen.
Thursday, I went to cover Lulu¹s funeral.
At the cemetery, the mourners occupied
two-storey chapel, while the press
stayed safely outside, out of range.
time the press got too close, the mourners
would launch a shower of pebbles or
bottles. Figuring that as a Canadian
convince them that I was different,
I cared about their stories, I set
the chapel. As I approached the door,
greeted with cat calls, hisses, yelling,
sprays of water, then angry men with
I turned around. Small stones and empty
bottles were tossed at my retreating
So much for the 'don't kill me I'm
The local TV news crews ran up, little 'Camera
Recording' lights glowing red. Did I think
that the reaction showed that Brazil was
dangerous, that favela dwellers were violent,
that Brazil was uncivilized? I opted to remain
low-key. 'I think there's definitely a lack
of understanding between the Brazilian press
corps and the people from the favela,' I
The cameras drifted away.
That night, one of the TV stations carried
a short clip about a foreign journalist attacked
at the funeral. The next day, and for several
weeks afterwards, people would tell me they
had seen me on TV. I was now locally famous
for being in the thick of things, though
as far as I could tell, both the action and
the understanding seemed still to be eluding
But if I wasn¹t really coming to understand
Rio¹s violence, I was at least becoming
comfortable with it. At the weekend
when the other men told their mugger
I began to theorize that certain people
mugging simply by looking muggable.
by staying aware and having an eye
along with an aura that said 'Don¹t
with me,' could keep the muggers and
and kidnappers at bay.
One night, walking back along the beach at
around 11, my wife and I decided to stop
for ice cream. It was my suggestion. Ice-cream
scoops in hand, we decided that, rather than
return to the brightly lit waterfront boulevard,
we'd take the shortcut along Ipanema¹s commercial
main drag, now mostly deserted. This too,
was my suggestion.
As we walked along, enjoying the warm night
air, I expounded on some pet theory or other
in a loud English-language voice. About halfway
along the block, my wife detached herself
from my arm, casually stepped off the sidewalk,
and nonchalantly threaded her way through
the light evening traffic to the sidewalk
on the opposite side.
'I expected you to follow,' she told me later,
though she gave no word, nod, or even an
elbow tug to indicate that it might be a
good idea to stick close and follow along.
What she¹d seen up ahead on the right was
a dark spot by a newspaper kiosk, where a
man was leaning his bicycle against a wall.
Combined with the article she¹d read the
month before about Ipanema¹s bike muggers,
this sight, to an urban-trained mind, meant
She didn¹t say anything to me, she says,
because she didn¹t want to let the mugger
know that we knew he was lying in wait. And
besides, she said, it was obvious.
Simple momentum, meanwhile, had kept
forward. A spurt of cars had kept me
crossing. To keep an eye on traffic,
my head mostly craned backwards over
shoulder, thus blinkering my view of
sidewalk up ahead.
A sudden movement out of the corner of my
eye finally caught my attention. A thin,
wiry man in a ragged shirt had appeared from
around the newspaper kiosk. From somewhere
in his shorts he had pulled out a kitchen
knife with a wide and nasty jagged blade
at least a foot in length. He was pumping
the knife up and down and taking small steps
'Money! Money!' he demanded.
Like many a small boy, I wasted much of my
youth reading adventure stories, fantasizing
about what I would do if I were Kimball O'Hara
or Bilbo Baggins, caught in a life-or-death
situation in which only quick, correct, and
decisive action could save the day. Here,
at last, was my moment.
I fliicked my double scoop of extra-creamy
chocolate-flake vanilla directly at the mugger.
The soft, splushy centre caught him squarely
in the face. It held there for a moment,
then plopped to the pavement.
We stared at each other, he with a look of
surprise, me with an empty ice-cream cup.
I can¹t really say how long the moment held.
I know the next thing I did wasturn and run,
dodging through traffic to reach the far
side of the street,then running hard along
the sidewalk until I reached the corner where
mywife stood with a beat cop, both of them
looking perplexedly back at the dark, dead
spot from whence I'd fled. There was no longer
any mugger to be seen.
'What's going on?' the cop demanded.
I thought about Rio, and the media
and how, in the most dangerous city
world, I had just beaten off a mugger
an ice-cream cup. 'Nćo sei,' I said.
I have no idea.
Shawn Blore is a freelance correspondent
based in Rio de Janeiro