Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Toro Magazine, September, 2004




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 February 2004, four people were killed in Rio de Janeiro: a couple shot to death during a home invasion; a man fatally beaten and left by the roadside on the city¹s outskirts; and a cop, shot in the face when his detachment came under attack by bandits unknown.

I learned all this over café com leite, reading the morning papers in my new apartment just three blocks from the beach in Ipanema, where I have set upresidence with my Brazilian wife. The stories merited no more than a fewinches each, and were placed on the bottom of the page, deep in the city section, somewhere 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 per 100,000
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 derby.

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 along.

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 rent on even the most humble apartment. As a result, many of Rio¹s darker-skinned residents seek out housing in favelas, communities of shacks that cling to the sides of Rio's steep coastal mountains. For the most part, favelas lack water and sewage systems, paved streets, and day-to-day
serve-and-protect-style policing

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 what time I walked past the favela steps, three old men were always in the small patio bar on the corner, while a twentysomething woman in shorts and a halter top stood invariably on the corner by a street lamp. The first few times I walked past, she offered me coke, or heroin, or plain old Mary Jane. I always declined. After a while she gave up offering and would content herself with a friendly 'Hi.'

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 of traffic.

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 on.

'Nćo sei,' she said. I don¹t know.

I grabbed my keys and camera, and took off down the stairs. Penha asked my wife if I was crazy. No, just a journalist, she replied. Penha shook her head and clucked. Leading my wife to the window, Penha pointed out a scattering of pockmarks on the outside wall of the building by our window.

'A stray bullet has no address,' she remarked, using an apparently common Rio expression describing the way in which bullets seem to hit everyone but those for whom they're intended.Down on the street, I was peering round a concrete wall like a kid playing hide-and-go-seek, watching a dozen cops point assault rižes at the stairway zigzagging up into the favela.

There was something filmic about the scene, a Matrix-style simulation žick with a touch of racial proŽling. I could see the police. So too could another white pedestrian, a woman who came round the corner, did a double-take, then scurried from the scene as fast as her high heels would allow. But to the black and brown residents of the favela, the police were seemingly invisible. The favela dwellers carried on up or down the hillside, smiling at each other, ignoring the men pointing guns at their heads. The police stayed in place, weapons pointed, for a full forty-five minutes.Then they downed their guns, got into a trio of SUVs, and drove off. The usual men were sipping beer on the corner. I asked what that had been about.

'Nćo sei,' they said. We dunno.

A few weeks later, on Good Friday, in the early hours of the morning, a private army of sixty men in a convoy of stolen cars set out from a hillside shantytown overlooking Ipanema to invade and conquer a second hillside favela nearby. The incident sparked off a 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 at the border of their target neighbourhood, Rocinha. The gunmen žed into enemy territory, initiating a three-way battle between gang and gang and police. Two cops died in the first day's Žghting, ambushed and machine-gunned in an alleyway beside a garbage dump. Four 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 as the biggest shantytown in Latin America: close to 100,000 people and five very busy bocas. The neighbourhood sprawls out from what was once a scenic mountain parkway. There's no zoning, no land-use planning, no roads except the one, no closed sewers, no red tape, no government. It's a Margaret Thatcher dream come true

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 battle.

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 had run to ground two alleged traŽcantes, killing both in a short exchange of gunfirre. The dead bodies were being ferried away in wheelbarrows, arms dangling out from beneath rugs that had been hastily žung over the corpses.

Wednesday, the police finally located and killed Rocinha¹s drug chief, a twenty-six-year-old trafficker named Lulu. Like a mafia boss, the drug chief is effectively king of the community he rules, and since coming to power in 1999, Lulu had ruled well, bringing peace, calm, and a measure of security to the community. All over Rocinha the shutters on the store 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 a two-storey chapel, while the press corps stayed safely outside, out of range. Any time the press got too close, the mourners would launch a shower of pebbles or plastic bottles. Figuring that as a Canadian I could convince them that I was different, that I cared about their stories, I set off for the chapel. As I approached the door, I was greeted with cat calls, hisses, yelling, sprays of water, then angry men with Žsts. I turned around. Small stones and empty plastic bottles were tossed at my retreating back. So much for the 'don't kill me I'm Canadian' idea.

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 said.

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 me.

But if I wasn¹t really coming to understand Rio¹s violence, I was at least becoming more comfortable with it. At the weekend get-togethers when the other men told their mugger stories, I began to theorize that certain people invited mugging simply by looking muggable. Others, by staying aware and having an eye for trouble, along with an aura that said 'Don¹t fuck with me,' could keep the muggers and robbers 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 trouble.

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 me moving forward. A spurt of cars had kept me from crossing. To keep an eye on traffic, I had my head mostly craned backwards over my left shoulder, thus blinkering my view of the 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 towards me.

'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 coverage, and how, in the most dangerous city in the world, I had just beaten off a mugger with an ice-cream cup. 'Nćo sei,' I said.

I have no idea.

Shawn Blore is a freelance correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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