Covering Rio Violence

© AP Photos / Felipe Dana


I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, so I’ve been exposed to this city’s endemic violence since I was a kid.

But it wasn’t until I became a journalist and started spending lots of time in the slums that most Rio residents from outside those areas never see that I was exposed to the real scope of the violence here and started to understand the toll it takes on people’s lives.

The so-called “police pacification” program, which was meant to solve Rio’s violence problem by bringing police to slums that had been dominated for decades by heavily armed drug gangs, started around when I joined The Associated Press, in 2009.

At first, I was really hopeful about the program. And it really seemed to be working. I was able to go into go into slums that before, I wouldn’t have been able to get into without the permission of the gangs that control the area.

But that’s not the case anymore. The improvement was fleeting. The program expanded quickly, and the police weren’t able to maintain enough officers in the pacified slums in order to keep control of the area. Also, the promise that other government services like sewage, garbage collection, schools and health clinics would be follow the police were never kept.

If anything, the situation in many slums is worse than before the pacification, and certainly more confusing. It used to be that you at least know who was in charge of a certain patch of turf. Now, even in slums where the police are still present, they aren’t really in control. Now the drug dealers are again in plain sight. Teenagers openly toting assault weapons are a common sight. And you don’t know when someone might open fire.

Rio’s slums are now conflict zones. You’ve got gangs fighting brutal turf wars; you’ve got police going after the gangs; you’ve got gangs going after police.

And stuck right in the middle of it, you’ve got the residents of the slums, 99 percent of whom are honest, hardworking people who have nothing to do with the gangs. But they’re caught in the crossfire, victims of what in Portuguese we call “balas perdidas,” which literally translates as “lost bullets.”

In Rio these days, we’re constantly hearing about people maimed and killed by these so-called lost bullets: housewives, teenage girls, little kids felled as they play in front of their homes.

It’s out of control.

On one Friday night, I saw the bodies of eight people who had been murdered across the Baixada Fluminense, the poor suburbs north of Rio where many of the gangs that were pushed out of slums in the city’s rich, white South Zone migrated after the start of the pacification program. That kind of death toll is not unusual in that area. An officer told me that police in the area were recently called to the scene of 19 murders in a single night.

This project to document the reality of Rio’s slums today grew out of the work that I’ve been doing in many slums for the past seven years. I drew on contacts to help me get into to places journalists rarely get access to. Often working throughout the night, I spent months visiting more than ten slums throughout greater Rio.

When you’re driving through certain parts of the city at night, the threat of violence is palpable. In the Baixada Fluminese, for example, the streets are empty and there’s barely any police presence.

I had some close calls. Once, in the Alemao slum complex, I was following police officers who came under intense fire. I spent several minutes spread-eagle on the ground before I was able to crawl to cover. Another time, I was finishing up a day of work in the North Zone of when another car screeched to a halt and armed guys got out and ordered us to hand over the keys to the car . They kept asking if we were police officers, as they kept their weapons trained on us.

It’s really unsafe.

But the reality is that during the Olympics, Rio will probably be very safe _ at least for the foreign visitors. There will be soldiers and lots of elite forces everywhere. Plus many of the traffickers told me they won’t be looking got conflict. They said they would lay low unless police invade their areas. It’s a bad time to pick a fight, and they are aware of that, so unless something extraordinary happens, violence shouldn’t be a big problem during the games.

But the real problem for all Rio residents, and especially all the people who live in slums, will come after Olympics. The troops will go home, and innocent people will again find themselves caught in the crossfire.

That’s the real tragedy.

One Response to “Covering Rio Violence”

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