Just another day in Rio’s favelas

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Violence has "become such a part of my routine that I’ve lost my fear. I’m not scared of dying but I am scared of giving up”. Español Português

Andrew Purcell
27 October 2017

Bullet holes can be seen on many house fronts in the favela Complexo do Alemão in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 16 July 2016. The Complexo is a big favela in Rio de Janeiro consisting of 25 settlements. Photo: Peter Bauza/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On its Facebook page, Coletivo Papo Reto keeps a record of all the gunfights in Complexo do Alemão, a conglomeration of sixteen favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s north zone. When shots are reported, the calendar is marked with an X. By October 4, the most recent update, there had been shoot-outs on 202 of 277 days of the year, almost all between military police and Red Command, the drug faction that controls the area.

April was an especially bloody month. A police operation to install an observation tower in the Nova Brasilia favela met with violent resistance, and in five consecutive days of gun battles, four people were killed: seventeen-year old Gustavo Silva was shot dead on his way to work at a bakery, soldier Bruno de Souza bled to death in his own home after being hit by a stray bullet, and thirteen-year-old Paulo Henriques was killed on route to a friend’s house to play video games.

On April 26, Coletivo Papo Reto’s cameraman, Carlos Coutinho, was returning home from work when he ran into an improvised demonstration at the corner of Avenida Itaóca and Estrada do Itararé. Henriques had just been laid to rest, and a few dozen people had closed off the streets and were waiting for mourners to return, watched warily by police. Coutinho took out his phone, opened Facebook Live, and began filming.

At first, the atmosphere is tense, but peaceful. A young woman in sweatpants and a bra top raps and throws hand signs at the officers on patrol. Police toss a smoke bomb, the crowd scatters and shots pap-pap-pap, but even then, the scene is surreally quotidian. People scurry past with their heads down, music blares from the shops, officers take cover behind a sheet of metal and a woman addresses the camera: “This is a joke. This is nothing.” Just another day in Alemão.

In the next clip, Coutinho is wearing a war reporter’s helmet, a bulletproof vest and a tag identifying him as a member of the press. He explains that his phone ran out of battery, so he went home to get his kit. For the next two hours, he broadcasts live.

He films a young girl covering her face to avoid breathing in tear gas, a mother weeping because her daughter is home alone where the firefight is most intense, shell casings from rifles and handguns littered on the ground, and later, a young man bleeding heavily from chest and neck wounds being carried to the community health centre. As the group approaches the clinic, police throw a smoke bomb and fire rubber bullets. The video has been viewed more than 63,000 times.

Sixteen-year-old Felipe Farias did not survive his injuries. “The police always say that the shot wasn’t fired by them,” Coutinho told me. “I don’t know if they’ve come round to saying he was a gang member yet, because he’d just arrived from school. He got home, got changed, and headed out.” No weapon or bullet casings were found in the alley where he fell.

Coletivo Papo Reto (CPR) was founded in 2013, initially to help residents get back on their feet after a season of destructive mudslides in Alemão. That community spirit is still evident on its Facebook page, which promotes a positive vision of the favela, advertising children’s parties and rooftop poetry slams, but the group’s primary objective is to document police brutality.

“Because this is a black, poor community, historically the only way the press talked about us was through the lens of violence,” said Raull Santiago, the group’s charismatic young frontman. “The way we’re seen by the authorities - all dialogue, all interaction or engagement - is through the sight of a rifle.”

Papo Reto means Straight Talk, a corrective to distorted representations of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ in Brazil’s mainstream media. “We decided that we needed to film, needed to denounce what was happening, and our cellphones were our weapon,” said Renata Trajano, another founding member of the collective.

Santiago and Trajano were addressing staff at the New York headquarters of WITNESS, an international NGO that teaches activists how to use video to defend human rights. The organisation’s Brazil Program Coordinator Victor Ribeiro, based in Rio, is there to help keep CPR’s members safe, improve the quality of the videos they shoot, and then use the clips to draw attention to, and sometimes prosecute, police abuses.

The collaboration first bore fruit in April 2015, after ten-year-old Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira was shot at close range by a policeman as he reached for his mobile phone. Coutinho arrived within an hour and filmed with a documentarian’s eye: a young brown body splayed on the concrete, a father stunned into silence, a hysterically grieving mother and the cartridges scattered nearby. His video was picked up by the international press, and Eduardo’s killing became a cause celebre, emblematic of uncontrolled police violence in Brazil.

Coutinho and Santiago have both lived in Alemão their whole lives. For the first time either can remember, the crime scene was sealed and a forensic scientist was sent to collect evidence. Normally, bodies are left for families to take care of or dragged out by police, then chalked up as one more who died ‘resisting arrest’ or another luckless person hit by a ‘stray bullet’.

“They’re always classified as ‘stray bullets’ as if a machine gun round just accidentally hit someone,” Santiago said. “How can the bullets be ‘stray’ if they always hit the same people in the same place? Those lives don’t matter.” Officially, police were responsible for 920 deaths in Rio de Janeiro last year. Activists claim the true total is much higher.

Because they do not report killings and abuses committed by drug traffickers - chiefly because it would be suicidal to do so - CPR are often portrayed as enablers by their right wing critics. “The drug traffickers are not the main problem,” says Santiago. “For an AK-47 to arrive in the favela, it arrived through the corruption of the police. It’s a cycle of extermination of the poor.”

Trajano said CPR’s members are regularly threatened by police officers. During the Praça de Samba campaign, Santiago had to be smuggled out of Alemão for a few days, following credible threats to his life. Coutinho told me a senior officer deliberately shot him twice in the legs with rubber bullets.

In November 2010, the Brazilian Army invaded Alemão, ostensibly to take it back from drug factions. Pacifying Police Units, known in Rio by their Portuguese acronym, UPP, were installed, and in the hopeful years before the 2014 World Cup, as the economy boomed and the murder rate dropped, it briefly seemed that the city had found an enduring solution to its chronic violent crime problem.

With hindsight, that optimism appears deluded. When I interviewed Professor Ricardo Henriques, the architect of UPP Social, in 2012, he assured me police taking control of the favela was just the start, and that soon the state would provide services - running water, sewage, refuse collection, education and health care - in areas of the city it had long abandoned.

Bar a few cosmetic improvements, those services never arrived, and as violence spikes all over the city - more than 5,000 people were murdered in Rio last year, 20% more than in 2015 - it is abundantly clear that more police was never the answer. Coutinho put it in the simplest possible terms: “In the old days, there was only one armed group in Alemão: the drug traffickers. Now there are two armed groups in Alemão: the police and the traffickers, and they fight each other all the time.”

In August, the armed forces assisted a week-long military police operation in Jacarezinho, a favela in the north zone, that ended with at least seven dead and many others wounded. Police officer Bruno Guimarães Buhler was among those killed, one of more than a hundred cops murdered in Rio this year. In a message directed at Red Command, but heard by the whole community,  commander Marcus Vinicius Amim Fernandes made the mission’s objective plain: “We will relentlessly get rid of you… I’m not scared of human rights.”

When police enter the favela in force, they typically carry a ‘collective search warrant’ giving them the contested legal right to kick down whichever door they choose. During the operation to take control of Alemão’s Praça de Samba they went further, occupying houses, barricading doors and windows with the furniture and setting up sniper positions.

With the help of WITNESS, CPR interviewed the people whose homes were occupied, including an elderly man in a wheelchair, a grandmother living with fourteen younger relatives, and a man blind in one eye. The video they shot, of ransacked houses turned into makeshift military bases, was presented to Rio’s public prosecutors, and in a rare crack in the culture of police impunity, two high level commanders were charged with illegally ordering the occupations.

“Coletivo Papo Reto has had huge impact,” Theresa Williamson of pressure group Rio On Watch told me, describing it as the vanguard of a citizen journalism movement that is challenging corporate ownership of the media narrative. “In favelas across Rio there are community photographers, journalists and video producers that document what’s going on.”

Santiago is a regular contributor on Globo, Brazil’s dominant television network, and fellow CPR member Thainã Medeiros has had articles published by the BBC, New York Times, and Americas Quarterly. “These are people from the favela, and ten years ago no-one from their situation would have been given credibility,” Williamson said. “But now because of social media, because of their work… they’re visible to the public as the experts that they are, so they can be at the table as equals, in a society that’s so chronically unequal.”

At the WITNESS event, Santiago put the logo of BOPE, the special forces unit of Rio’s military police, up on screen, and I saw it with fresh eyes: a grinning skull with a knife driven up through its chin, and two crossed pistols. An armoured vehicle flying that flag brings war, not security.

On October 23, military police in Rocinha shot a Spanish tourist, María Esperanza Ruiz Jiménez, when the car she was travelling in failed to stop at a roadblock, once again drawing international attention to the dangers faced by people living in Rio’s supposedly ‘pacified’ favelas. “There are days when I think about giving up because the violence causes so much suffering. It turns you into an aggressive person, a sad person,” Trajano said. “But it’s become such a part of my routine that I’ve lost my fear. I’m not scared of dying but I am scared of giving up.”

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