29 March, 2009

The sheet was bright white but streaked with blood that was very bright and very red.  I was about to turn left into another alley and I practically ran into them.  Six huge policemen were carrying the body, and the foot stuck out of the back end of the sheet.  Everyone in the alley stopped what they were doing, and some began to cry.  I stayed still and watched.  At the end of the alley they stopped to take a break, and put the body down on the ground.  They covered the body with the sheet, but this did not stop one young woman from lifting the sheet to see if she knew who it was. (The photo above was taken in my neighborhood, the police are standing with the body, in front of the shop where I get juice)


A few days ago the Rocinha traffickers went to Copacabana to steal a cache of weapons that was being stored there.  A firefight erupted in the streets between Rocinha traffickers and the police.  Normally the gunfire exchanges are limited to inside the favelas, and everyone knew that the police would come to Rocinha, to punish publicly.  Two awkward days of waiting ended at 6am with multiple helicopters flying over my apartment.  The police invaded, and lifted out a large cache of drugs and weapons.  There was an exchange of gunfire and the police stayed for the day to search for weapons and drugs.  My area, Valão, is known for hosting weapons and drugs.  I had a class to teach this same morning, and I made sure to take my identification with me.  The streets were full of police, but things were tranquil.  The traffickers, in standard guerilla warfare fashion, disappeared.  We watched the police walk through alleys followed closely by pretty reporters wearing Kevlar jackets, and images of the neighborhood were all over the news.   I returned to my apartment later in the day, and my alley was strangely empty and silent.  As I walked by a door made of thin iron bars, a three-year old girl said in Portuguese, “nobody is there.”  She was referring to the institute, where she frequently plays.  I asked why and she said because of the police.  I walked to the institute and saw several heavily armed traffickers at the end of the alley, it seemed the time for an attack was imminent, but it never happened.  The next day things were back to normal. 


Dear reader, this will be my last post on this site.  I feel I must put this away for some time.  After being with my neighbors in the alley as the body was being dragged out, things have changed.    Even before that I was feeling a heavy load.  My writings have not added any value to our community.   Naivety and false bravado have melted into real friendships and real issues.  All I saw in my first three months here was violence, and I am seeing things differently now.  There is a deeper story here, full of great people doing a million great things every day, and I am guilty of only reporting the story that sells.  It’s just too easy to write about the negatives, and I am no better than the field reporter in Iraq who exploits violence to get paid.  I will close this blog by midweek.  

17 March, 2009

A large hand grabbed my shoulder and turned me around.  I was trying to get into the van back to Ipanema.  I was struck by the size of the military policeman that was quickly in my face.  The questions came fast: what the hell are you doing in Rocinha, do you have drugs in your bag?  I smiled, showing calm on the outside but was nervous on the inside.  He grabbed my bag and my arm, and our walk was forced as we went to his car.  The other PM(Polícia Militar) was there, he was shorter, and little fat.   The tall one began to search my bag and other searched me, thoroughly. 


Earlier in the day I was at the institute, Luciano gave me cash to purchase a professional camera from Amazon.  This left me with 2,000 Reais to leave Rocinha, a ridiculous amount of money that no Brazilian would ever walk around with normally, unless that Brazilian was a trafficker.  After my meeting with Luciano, I went to the community center to get my class advertisement.  The bottom of my class advertisement had my bio, describing in a few sentences my Marine Corps background.  Rogerio, who had advised me initially that my real bio would be a good thing, had second thoughts.  After some discussion he relayed to me that he was unsure if the traffickers would be able to properly differentiate a military officer from the US, and a PM in Rio.  PMs in Rio are the enemy; any chance of suspicion that I may have a connection with the PM, would quickly result in an unsavory death in the microwave.  Microwaving is currently the en vogue manner of executing favela justice.  The guilty party is placed in a stack of tires, which are then set ablaze.  The guilty party melts inside the tires, as if in a microwave.  I must admit that I do think about this manner of death when I pass the trafficking points, asking the higher power every time, “please not today.”   I laugh at the absurdity of my thought, as if tomorrow would be a much better time to be microwaved.  Back to the community center, I retrieved my document and was thankful it had not been posted, then proceeded to leave Rocinha for the day. 


The larger PM reached in my bag and pulled out a perfect folded packet of 2,000 Reais, gangster style, a perfect rubberband holding the crisp fold.  I smiled and began to explain how I purchased a camera for a friend.  Things were not looking good as he continued to search my bag.  He found my folder of paperwork and began to read my class advertisement.  I had refrained from telling the PMs that I was a Marine, only that I was an American volunteer. 


A cafezinho is the standard practice of PMs in Brazil.  The supposed offender is taken to another location by the PMs, then asked for a bribe, the cafezinho.  Fifty or one hundred Reais would normally cover it, but if you were framed for a more serious crime, much more would be needed.  During my transaction with the PMs I was anticipating the request for the cafezinho, and was withholding my true background until I felt that the cafezinho may be coming.  If the cafezinho came before I told them the truth, then they would be embarrassed, and as a cat backed into a corner, they would have no escape.  If the situation was progressing toward a cafezinho, I knew I must tell them prior to the hint of it, so they would be able to get out, and the situation would be dissolved before it was too late. 


My class advertisement was in Portuguese and the larger PM read it thoroughly.  He finished the bio portion, executed a perfect turn towards me, saluted, and yelled “Capitão!”  Both PMs began to smile and laugh and the tension that was thick, immediately dissipated to hand shakes and smiles. 


I walked away from the PMs relieved, but my relief was replaced with morbid thoughts.  Any traffickers in the area, upon seeing how my transaction ended, would quietly take a note of my pleasant and friendly manner with the PMs. An unfortunate twist of fate, and I do not acknowledge PMs ever, any suspicions are quickly brought to justice.


You have comfort.  You don’t have luxury, and don’t tell me that money plays a part.  The luxury I advocate has nothing to do with money.  It cannot be bought.  It is the reward of those who have no fear of discomfort. – Jean Cocteau


I moved into Rocinha last week.  I am finding that it is an exercise in life management.  I have a small room in an apartment with a bed, a nightstand, and a chest of drawers.  The ceiling fan works hard to help me sleep at night.  My window opens to the staircase that leads up to the third floor.    I have no pillow or blanket, they are not needed.  I lay down and am thankful for the fan, and the sleep comes.


I used to need perfect white noise to sleep; I don’t anymore.  Favela life is constant noise, you become accustomed to yelling, fireworks confused as gunfire, gunfire confused as fireworks, and the vibrant hum of three hundred thousand people packed too closely. 


I did not hear the gunfire my first night in Rocinha.  My fan makes a whirling noise and my room faces inside.  Four traffickers we’re waiting in the Audi of a couple that was dining in Lagoa.  Once the couple arrived at their car, the traffickers made them drive to the couples’ home.  The driver tried to delay by driving around Ipanema, pretending his house was somewhere else, buying time.  The traffickers picked up on his intent, and made him drive to the ocean cliffs closer to Rocinha.  The traffickers left the couple there, hanging onto the concrete wall that fell down to the ocean below, screaming for help.  They were saved shortly after by the police.  The traffickers fled back to Rocinha and hid.  The military police went to Rocinha and there was an exchange of gunfire, then the police called the head trafficker and told him that if they did not give up the suspects, they would be coming in.  The head trafficker had the four beaten, put them in a van, and had them driven down the hill for the police.  The police then made a public spectacle of the criminals. 


You can’t just come riding in on the great white horse of moral principle; you have to solve the problem. – Sergio Vieira de Mello


I am coming to the conclusion that at some point, I will have to achieve the passive agreement of the head boca.  I have a short list of friends to make, all of which can make my path smoother and safer.  In a community that receives millions of Reais per month from trafficking operations, you cannot stretch your legs without getting passive agreement from head of Rocinha law.  More to come on this later.


Carnaval has come and gone.  The largest party on the planet was here, and the biggest parade the world knows occurred for five nights straight at the Sambódromo.  The Sambódromo is a gigantic concrete open-ended stadium that houses the fans watching each school’s parade.  I paraded with Rocinha’s Samba School as a clown.  Each school’s parade is about ninety minutes long.  The costumes, floats, and choreography is the greatest single spectacle on earth.  Volunteers work all year preparing for the event which is funded by legal companies and mafia-style organizations.  We waited in the preparation area for five hours and began our processional at four in the morning.  The parade is a competition so it was important for us to maintain a perfect line as we marched through while dancing.  I did not have time to memorize the song so I chewed gum to give the appearance that I was singing along properly. 


Reader, I have been very busy with life in Rocinha, and I am finding that one either writes things or does things.  I must be doing things now, and hope to have your patience with my poor and limited writing.