City of Death

(Maxim Magazine, 15/05/2004)

With Jonathan Franklin


We walk with guns drawn, fingers just off triggers, M-16s in combat-ready position. The policeman in front has so many 30-bullet cartridges across his chest it's a wonder he can stand. Other officers carry pistols on their thighs, armpits, and waists. Along with his rifle, the cop behind us is packing slings of cartridges, two pistols, a 16-inch knife, and a few other surprises.just in case. Welcome to life on the street as a beat cop in one of the Western Hemisphere's most dangerous neighborhoods.


Maxim is on duty with officers of the Special Areas Policing Group in the Cantagallo district of Rio, one of the 800 favelas, or shantytowns, that cling to Rio's hillsides. It's just a routine foot patrol for Commander Marco Aurelio Santos and his men, but with more than half of all patrols ending in shootouts, that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to get through it alive.


"What weapons do the gangs have that really worry you?" we ask Santos, thinking he'll say Uzis.


"The bazooka," he replies.


In the past decade, Brazil's role in the international cocaine trade has evolved from a way point between Colombia and Europe to the second-largest consumer market in the Western Hemisphere, and the Carnival city of Rio is its cocaine capital (think Medellin, Colombia during the '80s and '90s). Two main gangs are battling for control of Rio's drug trade-the Red Command and the Third Command-and it's a fight that claims more lives than most of the world's current conflicts. Between 1988 and 2001, 3,937 teenagers under the age of 18 were murdered in Rio. During that same period, the figure for Palestine's West Bank and surrounding areas was 467 teenagers. Locals now refer to it as simply A Guerra do Rio -the War of Rio.


"It's like Vietnam," says Antonio Rangel, an arms control campaigner who works for an antiviolence group called Viva Rio. "At first Rio was just a passageway on the route to Europe; now it's a market for cocaine. People come here to have fun-think of Carnival. Rio is a very hedonistic city."


Sixteen people are being killed in the war every day, almost within a stone's throw of the city's famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. It is into this slaughterhouse that we're walking, wearing nothing but bulletproof vests. They're fine against a cheap pistol, but not much use against the state-of-the-art weaponry Rio gangsters can buy with a few dozen grams of cocaine.


Cautiously, then, we enter the favela.


Islands of fear


One fifth of Rio's population-a million people-live in the favelas. With little or no permanent police presence within these areas, they are completely ruled by the drug gangs. Schools, garbage services, security-even late-night pharmacy runs for baby medicine-are all controlled by narco-traffickers. Our mission is to penetrate deep into the heart of this territory as part of a whole new strategy: to conduct regular community patrols and control access points to the favelas. Ultimately, we're there because other, less-consistent approaches have failed. The good guys are losing the drug war.


Yet Santos and his squad look more alert than afraid. The commander wears his usual easy-smile-and-sunglasses combination, but he's never less than 100 percent focused. At the station he keeps a semiautomatic pistol loaded and close-usually sitting just to the left of his desk so he can sign papers and grab it in less than a second. Out on patrol, though, not one of his men is wearing a helmet. Several smoke while their fingers rest on the triggers of their rifles, and all walk with the distinctive macho strut of the Brazilian male. They talk casually of a colleague who was hit by 16 bullets and lived. They call him RoboCop.


Meanwhile, Maxim' s thinking about Tim Lopes, the Brazilian reporter who dared investigate allegations of child prostitution at parties for higher echelons of the drug trade. While filming, he was captured, tortured with a samurai sword, then dismembered and set on fire.


Leaving the abandoned hotel where we started our patrol, we descend into a maze of narrow streets and alleys. The passages are no more than six feet wide, and they're crowded with mothers, babies, girls washing clothes by hand, boys running around-and, suddenly, with us and our M-16s, combat knives, and tear gas bombs.


If the civilians look innocent, it is deceptive. Small children known as fogueteiros warn dealers that the patrol is coming by igniting bottle rockets or setting off firecrackers to signal the traffickers to hide-or attack. It is estimated that there are as many as 10,000 armed soldiers working for Rio's drug syndicates, and many are children.


Now and then we pass walls pockmarked with bullet holes. This, says one of the officers, is good news. "It shows that these traffickers don't know how to fire their weapons," he tells us, going on to describe the intricacies of the fully automatic AR-15s, high-powered sniper rifles, and grenade launchers used by the bad guys. Indeed, a common cause of death is the bala perdida -lost bullet-where a shot fired on one of Rio's hills misses its target but takes an innocent life 6,000 feet below.


"At night the sky is lit by special ammo," says Santos, referring to the tracer rounds that show the paths of bullets and the random way in which they're shot. The violence doesn't stop for darkness. "The dealers have night vision equipment," Marcello Itagiba, Rio's subsecretary of public defense and Santos' boss, later explains.


Deadly arsenal


As we patrol, the three cops at the rear walk backward to discourage ambush. When we turn a corner, the men at the front put their guns around the corner first, then slide out behind them. Others on the patrol are detailed to look for snipers. Each time a bottle crunches under a combat boot, fingers brush triggers. Every corner has a dozen ambush points, and once a shootout begins, it can last for hours.


But don't the police have heavier firepower? Heavy weaponry? Helicopters? "The traffickers are the ones with the heavy weaponry," says Itagiba. "They can shoot our helicopters down."


Later one of Santos' men takes us to a secret warehouse where they keep confiscated weapons. Security is practically nonexistent: a couple of sleepy guards and few locks or barriers. Inside is what seems like more guns than in all of Hollywood's movies put together.


There is no order, just a chaos of destructive power. On shelves that make the place look like a museum annex, machine guns are stacked like firewood. Bazookas spill out of cupboards. We step on machine pistols, afraid that a bullet will explode and ricochet around until it hits a soft target-maybe us. It smells of dirt and dust and death.


"How many guns are there here?" we ask.


"About 65,000," says our guide. "Around 40,000 pistols, 10,000 rifles, 15,000 miscellaneous."


It is the miscellaneous we examine; thousands of bloody knives sealed in plastic bags, God knows what festering on their blades. We look at the far wall and see hundreds of plastic bags in piles, each with dozens of knives, skewers, pruning shears, and even the blue handle of a toothbrush shaved into a deadly shank. It's a collection of the most varied, lethal, and bizarre weapons ever created. A small pistol that fires arrows hangs from the wall. Each weapon has a reference number that, traced back to real life, involves a crime-often deadly.


Getting the guns is easy. Open air gun markets are now available in Rio de Janeiro. They're basically card tables set up in alleyways inside the tough favelas, and customers can find pistols from $12 to $25. Those looking for more serious hardware can arrange for private meetings to buy AK-47s. Patrons are allowed to browse the stalls, handling and choosing their weapons. When they want to try a gun, they simply point skyward and fire. The bala perdida lands somewhere in Rio.


Guns are so prolific in Rio, one guard tells us, that the police store them at the warehouse until they have a batch numbering in the tens of thousands. Then, in a big public demonstration, they lay the weapons in huge piles on the street and run a tractor over them or melt them in a bonfire.


"Is it true that 700 people a month are killed by guns in Rio?" we ask.


"That is so typical of journalists. What an exaggeration! At most it is 550," says the guard.


Turf wars


Back on patrol, we pass more narrow, winding alleys, more children, dogs, roosters. Soon we're in a street barely three feet across, thick with palm trees. Caged parrots hang off telephone poles, and bands of squirrel-size monkeys live in the fig trees. From the roofs, we get dark looks from shirtless residents who stop eating their breakfasts to stand and stare down at us. Samba music blasts from plywood huts. The air fills with the smell of urine.


The cops might as well be a foreign invasion force. When Brazil's military dictatorship ended 20 years ago, the new civilian government took a hands-off approach to the favelas in the name of social progressiveness. The neighborhoods became islands more or less independent from the Brazilian state, and the drug gangs filled the vacuum. Ironically, the favelas are exceptionally safe for residents, but step on the wrong toes and justice can be harsh. An accused rapist or thief, for example, doesn't get a trial. Instead, a drug leader is called in, hears the arguments, and may well order an execution right there in the street.


In one case the police managed to flip an insider, Venicio, who began selling them information. Once the local drug lord learned of the treachery, he put a price on the informant's head.


"Within a day he was found in the street with one bullet through the ear and two more through the chest," claims another informant from the same favela where Venicio lived. The informant sees cops raid his favela all the time, hears automatic gunfire almost every night, and has seen his fair share of body bags loaded into ambulances that wait at the bottom of the hill. Even medics dare not enter the favela. In one favela an illegal cemetery was discovered with the graves of people who had met just such an end.


Maxim' s photographer, Morten, tries to pass the commandos to photograph them with the favela in the background. Springing into action, they scream at him in Portuguese and hurl him back to his place behind the vanguard. They want nothing to distract them from the figures in the windows and rooflines. No shots come, but it's clear the memory of combat is fresh. Minutes later we see why.


We stop at a little police hut. The day is unusually hot, and we are all sweating profusely, yet no one considers removing his bulletproof vest. A tall, friendly man walks up, selling cupcakes from a colorful tray.and the squad quickly throw themselves into crouched "ready" positions, backs against the wall, machine guns raised.


"Why?" we ask when the tension subsides a bit.


"There was a bloody shootout here," says Santos. "Lots of people killed." He points to a cluster of bullet holes-and tells us about the two-hour battle that took place. This one was two drug gangs killing each other for the second most valuable commodity in the cocaine trade: turf. Most of the favela battles occur over drug distribution points, street outlets known as bocas do fuma -mouths of smoke.


So what, exactly, do the police intend to do? Step up their attack with hundreds of thousands of more highly trained and heavily armed cops to conduct routine patrols and raids in the favelas.


Will it work? Not unless the police take an equally tough stance on corruption in their own force. Prison wardens, for instance, allow gangsters access to everything from laptops to lap dancers (one imprisoned drug lord, known as Seaside Freddy, recently coordinated a round of riots and bus burnings by mobile phone from his cell). And the cops outside of jail are even worse.


"Most of the guns taken by police in one favela are sold in the next," says Katia Lund, the Brazilian filmmaker who codirected last year's surprise cinema hit City of God. "An AK-47 is worth 5,000 reais [$1,700]."


And that's just part of the cycle. "The police arrest dealers and hold them to ransom. It happens all the time. The ransom varies from 50 reais [$17] to one million [$350,000]," Lund says.


"To get their boss released, the dealers borrow money from their friends to pay off the police, but now they're in debt. They use their guns, go into the streets, and kidnap someone or rob a bank."


Commander Santos and his team insist they have never seen police corruption, of course, but plenty will testify to its presence. When the Rio police stop a civilian, the entire conversation is an extended transaction. The cop needs money or food. If the driver has a large-denomination bill and the cop is generous, he may offer change or take a check. He may even be satisfied with a hot dog or a free lunch coupon, but with an average salary of only $200 a month, he must be paid. Then again, he could join the ranks of the gang soldiers, who typically make $1,000 a month.


In Rio the police plan as many assassinations as the dealers. Only when it is a full-on massacre do the newspapers bother to note the details, like the famous case of seven sleeping street children who were slaughtered in front of Rio's Candelaria Cathedral by a death squad allegedly made up of vigilante police officers. In 2003 police in Rio allegedly killed more than 900 civilians.


There's no question that some members of the police steal and resell the finely grained Colombian cocaine they confiscate. And there's no question that they do sometimes shoot innocent children.


"The cops are scared," says Ruben Cesar Fernandes, director of the arms control charity Viva Rio. "And because of their fear, they shoot first and ask questions later." At the most, he says, two policemen a week are gunned down by armed adolescents. "And the kids respect policemen who come in shooting, not the ones who come in to talk."


Broken dreams


The sky opens up, and suddenly we're back at the abandoned hotel where we started. We rip off our vests; the soldiers stack their guns and breathe more easily. In Brazil's number one tourist destination, the derelict hotel is an ominous sign. If the violence continues, there will almost certainly be more of them.


And it's almost certain the violence will get worse. Even in the climate of renewed hope under the new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, actual change appears distant. Da Silva has placed hunger, education, employment, and trade above urban violence on the priority list; he believes crime will diminish if he tackles the other problems first, but it's a race against time and money. The drug gangs grow stronger every day, and Brazil's weak federalist government forces the states to provide their own security.


How bad could it get? Imagine the world's fifth most populous nation controlled entirely by drug lords. Brazil's drug gangs are allegedly already being trained by Angolan rebels, buying off politicians left and right, and deftly allying themselves with grass-roots social movements for the poor. Stopping the gangs in Rio alone means battling 10,000 armed men who control all the high ground above the city. The borders Brazil shares with 10 other countries-including the world's top cocaine producers-are among the most porous in the world.


Only a few weeks after our patrol, vigilante police killed four young men-all unarmed-outside a barbershop in a favela on the north side of town. A few months after that, a single drug trafficker battle went on for an epic 36 hours, resulting in 11 deaths. One of the victims was a 14-year-old boy. In all likelihood he was a combatant. His death, which hardly raised an eyebrow among police, brings to mind a sad saying among Rio cops: "The difference between a veteran policeman and a dead rookie is the split second it takes to think twice about killing a child."