17 September 2005
The Telegraph Magazine
Overshadowing the glamour of Copacabana beach, the favelas
represent the dark side of Rio – ramshackle shanty towns
where the rule of law has been replaced by armed bandits and cocaine
barons barely out of their teens. Lutz Kleveman meets the gang
members of Rocinha, a place of danger, drugs and golden guns.
PDF containing photographs here.
Sometimes, when he needs a break from the killing, Speed rides
his motorcycle to the top of the hill to smoke a joint and enjoy
the view of the ocean. This view might be the one reason to envy
the residents of the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro. It is magnificent.
From high up on the hillside they can see the Sugar Loaf, with
the sunbathing tourists at Copacabana beach right below.
Speed has never been to Copacabana. For him
it is another world, light-years away. It is dangerous down there,
he says. The police have photographs of him; they know his face.
'If they see me, they shoot me.' Speed is a lord of the hill -
and its captive. A broad-chested black Latino in his mid-twenties,
with a cautious but candid look in his eyes, he is a senior member
of the gang that controls Rocinha. Like all gangsters around here,
he uses a nom de guerre.
In Rocinha, as in most of the 700 favelas that house half of all
Rio, there is war. A war about money, drug money. A new generation
of young and brutal drug lords fight for rule of the hills, virtually
holding hostage their hundreds of thousands of residents. Rocinha
is the most coveted piece of turf in this gang war. Many of the
war's victims are little more than children. So are most of the
To set up a meeting with Speed was not easy,
but after many phone calls and a few beers it was done. Speed
greets me in the manner of the 'boys': a handshake, followed by
a brief touch of clenched fists and a thumbs-up to say 'Tudo bem
- all good!' At his waist the butt of a revolver bulges out from
under his T-shirt. He pulls a Nextel two-way radio from his belt
to talk to several men. Much palaver, back and forth, then he
nods to me. 'Vamos!' We mount his Kawasaki motorcycle and ride
down the curvy main road, Speed trying hard to live up to his
Somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 people are estimated to
live in Rocinha, though no one really knows how many. Their homes
are a chaotic jumble of ramshackle brown huts and concrete blocks
clinging precariously to the steep slope overshadowed by a giant
cliff of gloomy granite rock which now, with dusk advancing, reflects
the deep red light of the setting sun, while the strip of tropical
forest beneath it already lies in the dark, looking like giant
broccoli heads. It smells of the day's rain, the smoke of meat
being fried, and cheap fuel.
Favelas have been desribed as tumours, disfiguring
blemishes on a city where the wealthy live by the beach and the
poor hang on to the hills above. But Rocinha is more like a glacier,
sliding slowly but relentlessly downwards to the main road. Several
times armed gangs have taken their favela battles down to the
city below. Tourists have been caught in the line of fire. Recently,
the highway to the airport had to be closed as gangs waged shoot-outs
right across it. This evokes memories of 1994 when, in broad daylight,
several gangs stormed into the elegant streets of Ipanema and
Copacabana, fighting house-to-house and robbing tourists. Only
now, the violence is worse.
Riding on the back of Speed's motorcycle,
we pass through several security cordons invisible to the uninitiated.
Once I notice Speed give a reassuring nod to two boys at a street
corner who have been looking at me. Without his presence and the
permission from his boss, I would be unlikely to get very far
inside Rocinha. In June 2002 Tim Lopes, a well-known reporter
for the Brazilian television channel Globo, was caught in one
of the favelas filming drug dealers with a hidden camera. First
they beat him in the street. Then he was stripped naked, handcuffed,
tortured and finally shoved into a small cave in the granite rock.
With tyres on his left and right, he was burned alive. They call
this the 'microwave' in gang slang.
At first sight Rocinha does not seem like
a dangerous, drug-infested slum. There are buildings made of concrete
and red brick. For years there has been running water and electricity.
Residents wear new jeans and clean shirts; flashy mobiles are
clipped to their belts. There are shops and restaurants, several
gyms, a bank, a post office - and even two police stations. Much
worse slums exist in Rio, like the favela Cidade de Deus, which
gained worldwide notoriety in 2002 through the film of the same
name (translated into English as City of God).
Rocinha is older and more established than
most favelas: as early as the mid-Fifties impoverished rural migrants
set up their huts here. Though tens of thousands soon followed,
the city government ignored their existence for decades. If nobody
was officially living there, there was no need to build schools
and hospitals. They spent the money on beach promenades for tourists.
But in 1992 Rocinha received the official status of a neighbourhood.
Today even municipal buses come here.
We stop and park the motorcycle outside a
bar named Garota da Via Apia - 'the girl of the Via Apia'. Above
the wooden chairs and tables covered with red-and-white chequered
plastic, several fans hum at the ceiling. Lined up above the long
zinc bar is a battalion of bottles containing any liquor that
tastes good and hits hard: a lot of gin, whisky and, of course,
rum. The waitresses are dressed in tight black skirts and red
T-shirts with Garota written on them. Pop music blares from a
television on the wall. The bar has no windows, just an elevated
terrace, fenced in by a wooden balustrade. We choose a table with
a good view on to the street, bustling with people chatting, bargaining,
buying, laughing and walking on. There are very few white people,
not surprisingly, and notably few old people.
Amid all this stand the dealers. Leaned against
an electricity pole directly opposite the Garota, there are four
or five boys in bermuda shorts and flip-flops, all of them sporting
gold chains and tattoos. Each boy holds two plastic bags in his
hands, one apparently filled with bank notes, the other filled
with cocaine rolled into small longish pieces of plastic. One
of the boys, obviously fed up of rummaging through his plastic
bag, had stuffed 10 coke portions into the corner of his mouth
for better reach. 'Drugs here, drugs!' shouts another one, somewhat
unnecessarily, like a bazaar vendor.
A deal is done fast. The customer arrives,
hands over a 10-reais note, receives a little bag and walks on.
Ten reais - just over £2 - for a gram of coke, sufficient
for about 10 lines, is no crippling price. In London, a gram costs
20 times this much.
Sometimes the dealers shake hands with a customer,
followed by the touch of fists. There is not much talk and no
bargaining. Secretive behaviour is unnecessary; the dealers are
like drug dispensers, coke machines on the side of the street.
Speed rarely peddles drugs these days. He
is now a soldado, a soldier, after spending years moving up the
strictly hierarchical gang career ladder. 'You start out, when
you are still very young, as a fogueteiro, which is harmless,'
he tells me. 'You play with other kids on the edge of the favela,
flying kites and stuff.' Indeed, children playing with kites are
a common sight in all favelas. When the fogueteiros see something
suspicious, strangers or policemen, they dash off to inform the
foguetes, the rockets. 'They are older and their job is to set
off firecrackers to warn the guards.' The guards then take over.
Equipped with Nextel radios, they describe the situation to the
soldiers who, in turn, consult with the gerentes, the administrators,
about their tactics. The worst case scenario is a razzia by the
military police forces, known to shoot first and ask questions
later. In that case the gang usually withdraws up the hill. 'From
up there it is a lot easier to aim at enemies below,' Speed explains.
'Orders to shoot are given only by the chefe or, in an emergency,
by his right-hand man. All that needs to happen very fast, within
a few minutes.'
Suddenly, a lanky boy shows up at our table,
holding a big black M16, the automatic rifle of choice. The barrel
sweeps above the table and kicks over the napkin box. The rifle's
butt is adorned with a sticker of Che Guevara in his famous pose,
gazing into the revolutionary future. The presence of a gringo
in their favourite bar, observing the dealers in a conspicuously
inconspicuous way, has not gone unnoticed. 'What is this guy doing
here?' the lanky boy asks in a gruff voice, now using the rifle
to shove the napkins to the edge of the table. Speed calms him
down, calling me an amigo. Leaning the M16 against the table,
the boy, who introduces himself as Angel, sits down and pours
some Skol beer into his glass.
Why did they choose a career, I ask them,
that limits their life expectancy? The boys grin derisively. 'Our
life is never boring, and we get a regular salary,' Speed replies,
placing his silver-coloured 9mm pistol on the table. 'Only the
stupid and reckless die early. I have been in this for 10 years,
you see.' Indeed, once past their teens, Rio gangsters are considered
Talking about their job, Speed and Angel attempt to portray themselves
as private cops who merely replace ordinary police. 'We protect
the community and provide security for everybody,' Speed affirms.
'We have our own laws and they are tough. There is no crime here,'
he adds without a hint of irony. 'No thieves, no pimping. And
rapists get the death penalty, immediately.' Including gang members,
This might not sound credible, but most favela
experts confirm the absence of drug-unrelated crime in favelas.
You're more likely to get robbed at the Copacabana than in Rocinha.
In the favela's long history of social self-organisation, vigilante
groups have always played a role. While the gang puts itself and
the drug business first, it also, in its own way, provides a certain
order in the favela. The underlying logic is that the gang leaders
seek to avoid police attention at all cost. Peace is good for
business, trouble is not. But of course Speed and Angel do not
carry their weapons to scare off petty thieves. 'We have enemies,'
says Speed. 'They are the police and other gangs.'
The Rocinha gang's current main enemy is the
gang that runs the neighbouring favela Vidigal, on the other side
of the granite rock. Some 20,000 people live there, above the
jet-set beach of Leblon. In the past, there were few problems
with Vidigal - until Dudu returned from jail. Whenever this name
is mentioned, the people of Rocinha, gangsters as well as normal
residents, react with a mixture of disgust and fear.
Dudu grew up in Rocinha and in the late 1990s
became second-in-command under Lulu, the favela's long-time drug
lord. 'Lulu was a good chefe who looked after his men and the
community,' Speed recalls. 'But Dudu was an arsehole. He was brutal
and when he drank rum with speed pills he became unpredictable
and started shooting around.' In 1997 Dudu was arrested in a police
raid and put in jail. He was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment
but was released after three - for good conduct. 'He bribed the
right people in the system to let him out,' Speed says. The following
day, Dudu showed up in Rocinha and demanded his old position back,
but Lulu told him to go to hell. Furious, Dudu teamed up with
the gangsters in Vidigal and talked them into invading Rocinha.
At dawn of Good Friday 2004 about 60 men from Vidigal, all dressed
in black, stormed the neighbouring favela. After hours of fierce
gunfights, the invaders controlled all important bocas de fumo
(drug-selling sites). Nearly 20 people lay dead in the street.
Crucially, Lulu was shot and killed - by police who had been tipped
off and who used the invasion to settle scores. Speed believes
they were paid by Dudu.
But Dudu made a mistake: while hijacking several
cars on the beach road before the attack he shot two women dead,
including the daughter of an influential Brazilian diplomat. On
Easter Monday, no less than 1,200 elite fighters of the military
police moved into Rocinha. After a long game of hide-and-seek
with several shoot-outs, Dudu handed himself in on New Year's
Eve and went back to prison, where his life is safest.
The news of the arrest was greeted ecstatically
by the people of Rocinha. 'All night long we celebrated and shot
our guns and fireworks into the air,' Speed remembers. 'With those
arseholes from Vidigal, however, we still have scores to settle.'
Ever more customers walk up to the coke dealers
outside the Garota bar. Many do not look like they live in Rocinha.
'They are from Ipanema,' Speed says. 'They are probably going
to a party later and want to get high.' The middle-class customers
often park their cars down at the main road, less than 300 yards
below us, and walk up. Others send one of the motortaxistas to
get the drugs for them. The volume of business is despite the
heavily-armed police standing outside a station two blocks up
the road. Ah, they are cool,' Speed says nonchalantly. 'The cops
know that we all need to make some money. It is also healthier
for them not to look too closely.' And more profitable as naturally
they get paid for turning a blind eye. It is an open secret that
most of the bribes are passed on to their equally corrupt commanders
who in turn move the money further upstairs and so on.
Rocinha is regarded as a slightly safer place
than other favelas such as Cidade de Deus, where few outsiders
dare to venture. That is why Speed's gang has a much higher turnover
than the competition - $3-5 million a week, press reports say
- which makes Rocinha's bocas de fuma the most coveted booty in
the favela turf war. Whoever controls Rocinha gets rich.
Three big drug syndicates control the narco-business
in Rio. The oldest of them is Comando Vermelho (CV), 'the red
command'. Its origins go back to the Seventies, when the first
professional drug dealers were jailed. Under the right-wing military
dictatorship ruling Brazil at that time many dealers shared their
cells with political prisoners, mainly members of communist parties.
It was they who first taught the dealers how to set up and run
efficiently organised clandestine groups. On their release the
drug dealers used their newly acquired knowledge to found the
first syndicate, naming it in homage to their mentors. Later,
a rival mafia appeared on the scene, the Terceiro Comando (TC),
'the third command'. In the late Nineties, a group of discontented
mid-level drug lords from both organisations teamed up for a third
big player, Amigos dos Amigos (ADA). These 'friends of friends'
have been controlling Rocinha and other favelas for a few years.
Using their allegedly excellent contacts in
politics and business, the godfathers of all three syndicates
are able to move massive amounts of cocaine from Colombia. The
first Brazilian to travel to the Medellin cartel in the Eighties
and order planeloads of cocaine was the businessman and subsequent
CV boss Luiz Fernando da Costa. In April 2001 he was arrested
in Colombia and has since been in jail in Rio. His incarceration,
however, has in no way ended Da Costa's wheeling and dealing.
He continues to conduct his drug business by way of cell phone
calls. When in February 2003 the government tried to tighten the
prison rules for Da Costa, he decided to briefly demonstrate the
extent of his power outside the prison walls. A few days later,
CV gangsters blew up 20 public buses within a few hours, and Da
Costa's cell phone was swiftly returned to him.
Together, the gangs of Rio and other cities
have turned Brazil into a top customer in the global cocaine business.
No other country in the world except the United States consumes
as much cocaine. The facts are disturbing: in 2003 the police
confiscated more than five tons of cocaine in the region around
Rio, three times more than in 2000. According to a recent study,
about 10,000 people, mostly minors, work in the drug business
in Rio alone. Homicides in the city have increased threefold in
the last decade, to more than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants annually.
(In London the figure is aroud 2.5 per 100,000.) There are also
about 2,000 cases per year of people reported missing, many of
whom are believed to have disappeared into the favela gangs' secret
cemeteries. About 6,000 firearms were confiscated in 2003 - 10
times more than 10 years ago. Every year, more youths get shot
and killed in Rio than in the war zones of Colombia and Sierra
Meanwhile, in the Garota bar more gang members have shown up.
Aged between 13 and 25, their outfits resemble that of so many
child soldiers in the tropics: flip-flops, bermuda shorts and
oversized Nike or Adidas T-shirts, gold chains, bleached hair
and tattoos. Higher-ranking soldiers own several cell phones and
Nextel radios, used to communicate constantly with other comrades
on the hill.
Their arsenal of weapons is eclectic: Remington revolvers, the
inevitable Kalashnikovs (complete with extra magazines taped together),
two Israeli Uzi machine pistols, and weird shotguns with short,
thick barrels which could easily spread a load of bullets throughout
the entire bar. One of the gangsters has three old hand grenades
dangling from his belt. In other favelas police have found landmines,
and a few months ago a gang attempted to shoot down a police helicopter
with air-defence missiles.
The boys are remarkably relaxed about their weapons, in the
same way an Englishman would handle his umbrella. Besides the
ever-popular Che Guevara, the stickers adorning their rifle butts
show Bob Marley, various female beauties, and Osama bin Laden,
complete with beard and turban. Why him? 'Don't know,' the rifle's
owner says with a shrug. 'He is a rebel like us, my friends tell
me.' The boys burst out laughing.
Some girls join the group. They were at the beach all day, thin
white lines tracing the exact course of their bikini strings down
from the shoulders, which is currently a popular fashion statement
in Rio. The sight of the weapons does not appear to trouble them
either. 'What a fine, long gun you have here,' one girl jokes,
stroking the barrel of Angel's M16.
They all drink beer and smoke joints, massive trumpets of joints,
albeit only on the street. 'Not in the bar, that is not good manners,'
Speed says. 'The smoke would bother other people eating.' Equally,
nobody drinks beer from the bottle. 'That has no style.' And the
gangsters never fail to pay their beer tab. What about the cocaine,
where is that being consumed?
Speed's look clearly brands my question as very silly. 'None
of us takes cocaine.' He is serious. 'Coke f**** you up. It is
unprofessional to take it and it just causes trouble. The chefe
does not allow it.' The ban is a security measure: as cokeheads
become aggressive and their egos inflated, they might suddenly
consider it a splendid idea to shoot at comrades or even the boss.
Not all gangs are that disciplined. Many fighters in other favelas
are feared especially because they snort away all inhibitions
before going into battle. The use and sale of crack, however,
has been banned by all gangster bosses. It is as hard to come
by in Rio as heroin.
Suddenly, the boys grow quieter. Not silent, just quieter. Those
who still laugh or talk loudly are given a little kick against
the leg. Looks turn to a tall man in his twenties walking towards
the bar. 'He is the gerente general, the chefe's right-hand man,'
Speed whispers. Exchanging somewhat humourless nods with his men,
the gerente sits down on a bar stool, the boca de fuma in full
view. Nothing underlines the gerente's power more clearly than
the AK-47 placed in his lap - it is made of gold. Not the mechanical
parts, but the entire barrel and the trigger. Of course, it belongs
not to him but to his boss.
The chefe's name is Bill, pronounced as Biu, who succeeded Lulu.
He features prominently on the police's most-wanted list, which
in Rio is tantamount to a blacklist for liquidation on sight.
That is why Bill shuns the open street and is said to change houses
in Rocinha every night. Rumour has it that Bill also owns a pistol
made of white gold which he uses solely to execute people - with
appropriately gilded bullets, that a surgically trained member
of the gang subsequently extracts from the corpses, for recycling.
It is past midnight. Most of the gangsters are now very drunk.
Their conversations spin around rap music, sex and their rivals
from Vidigal who have it coming for them. The boys are joined
by some Rocinha residents who do not belong to the gang. Among
them are a painter who enquires about galleries in New York; a
(self-published) novelist who wants to write a play for children;
and a hip-hop MC known all over Brazil who emphatically states
that, despite his success and new wealth, he would never move
out of Rocinha.
A newsclip on the television above the bar shows Diego Maradona,
obese like a hippo. 'That guy takes too much cocaine,' comments
one of the dealers, shaking his head. 'That is not healthy.' The
others nod in agreement, without a trace of irony, suddenly showing
a vivid interest in health issues. Speed pours a spoonful of olive
oil into his beer. 'The oil will purify the veins in your body,
the whole system.' Angel recommends a piece of garlic every morning.
'Since I have been doing that, I have not had a single cold or
sore throat,' says a gangster whose life will almost certainly
be ended by a bullet, perhaps as early as next week.
The alcohol whittling away their initial mistrust, the boys
allow themselves to be photographed. With improbable vanity, they
strike poses for the camera, proudly holding their weapons. After
each picture, they stare excitedly at the display on the digital
screen and crack up laughing, like little children. Even the gerente
agrees to pose for a portrait, though he pulls a baseball cap
down over his face to remain unrecognisable.
Within a second, however, the general hilarity implodes when
a man unzips his trousers in front of the camera for a strip.
I noticed him earlier: older than most, dressed in dirty clothes,
and evidently not a gang member, he behaved obsequiously with
the boys, getting them beer and sandwiches. He was drunk and often
stumbled. The gerente swiftly orders several boys to take care
of the problem. Confused but not resisting, the poor man is taken
away into a side street.
'That guy is an idiot,' Speed says laconically. 'Taking off your
trousers in public and in front of a visitor is just not acceptable.
He has disgraced the community.' What is going to happen to him
now? Speed looks out on the street, remaining silent. Are they
going to beat him up? Speed shakes his head. 'No, he will die.'
For a small incident like that? 'It was a serious breach of the
rules, and not for the first time. He drinks too much and he pisses
in the street. He deserves it.'
Few people in Rocinha are willing to talk about the life under
the state of siege by which the gang keeps the majority of the
population hostage. One who does speak out is Paulo Amendoim.
A short, wiry man, he grew up in Rocinha in the Fifties, the son
of dirt-poor alcoholics, and he has spent all his life here. Yet
he also got to know the world 'out there' as one of Brazil's best
athletes in the Seventies. Holding several South American running
records for years, he came seventh in the 1,500 metres at the
Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976. As a reward, the government
sent him on a two-year scholarship to a university in Germany
to study languages.
For the past 10 years, Amendoim has been running a sports-and-education
project to get the children off the street, away from the gangs.
'Up to 500 kids come here every other day,' he says as we enter
the sports club he has rented, with money from the city council,
on the other side of the Rocinha hill. The club, complete with
a large pool, used to belong to the wealthy families who live
further down in the valley. When the favela came creeping over
the hill, they decided to go swimming elsewhere. 'Before, we were
not even allowed to come close to the gate and now we have basically
occupied the club,' remarks Amendoim with a laugh.
Aged between five and 17, dozens of boys and girls cheerfully
splash around in the pool while others play volleyball and basketball.
Meanwhile, the other half of the group sits in class. 'Nearly
20 teachers instruct the kids in all elementary subjects,' Amendoim
explains on a tour through the clubhouse. 'Few attend a regular
school.' In classrooms with such a spectacular panorama - overlooking
the Sugar Loaf, the lagoon and the statue of Christ the Redeemer
on the Corcovado hill - the studying must not come easy.
Amendoim talks to the children about drugs and the dealers.
'Not even the parents dare to do this, for fear of pissing off
the gang.' Of course, the gang leaders know about his work, he
continues, but have never given him any problems. 'They respect
me. I don't mess with their business and they leave me alone.
Anyway, they know that there will always be enough kids willing
to buy drugs or work for the gang.' Only when his oldest son became
friends with the gang did Amendoim feel that enough was enough.
'He told me over dinner that he wanted to be a dealer. I was speechless.
Then I got a bottle of rum, poured it over him, and set him on
fire.' The method worked. Today his son has an honest job and
a wife, with a baby underway. But Amendoim and his nearly 50 co-workers,
most of them volunteers, cannot save every child. 'I had a boy
here for years, a nice quiet one, who was artistically inclined,'
he remembers. 'One day the police caught him spraying graffiti
downtown, and he was put in jail for two years.' Ineluctably,
the boy came into contact with real criminals, and when he was
released he joined the Rocinha gang. 'I implored him to go home
to his family but he only shrugged his shoulders. Three weeks
later they shot him dead.'
In the 30 years that drug gangs have been active in Rocinha,
the situation has never been as bad as today, Amendoim claims.
'In the old days, they did their work discreetly and all was quiet
and peaceful. They only killed behind closed doors. Today we have
an open war going on.' Amendoim and other observers are in no
doubt about the reason for this: since the old drug lords exited,
young hotbloods have usurped the business and are engaged in ruthless
'The old guard had grown up with us and they knew everyone in
the favela,' Amendoim says. 'They were godfathers who had, however
strange it may sound, a certain kind of social responsibility.
They knew they needed a degree of sympathy from the community
to do their business without being denounced to the police.' By
contrast, the new bosses pursue quick profits, with unbridled
brutality and disregard for the community. 'They know they are
going to die young and that is how they behave. It is sheer terror.'
Amendoim introduces me to his friend André, a former
gang member. Of slender stature and quiet manners, André
recalls his first cocaine hit. 'I was 16. Until then I had never
had a girlfriend and that night I had two at a time.' The job
in the gang provided the regular salary he needed to pay for his
increasing addiction. 'I dealt, I was a soldado, I did basically
everything one does - except I never killed anyone.' After his
father kicked him out, the gang became his surrogate family. André
lived in the street. One day, about two years ago, he was approached
by a priest of the New Baptist Church, which has erected several
places of worship in Rocinha. ' "Do you want to die like
a dog, or come with me?" he asked me.' André went
with him and did a six-month rehab in a Baptist-run clinic in
the countryside. 'God has saved me. Today I am once again a respected
man. I can leave Rocinha, go to the beach, whenever I want. I
The Baptists and, with a smaller presence, the Roman Catholic
Church are the only true opponents of the favela gangs. Every
Sunday, courageous preachers rail against 'the wrong path', the
violence, the drugs and the state of siege which the gang has
practically imposed on Rocinha. None would go as far as calling
on the community to engage in civic resistance against the gang,
qualifies André, who now works for the New Baptist Church.
'That would be suicide. Instead, we are committed to peaceful
co-existence and passive resistance by pointing out the right
way - and the right ways out.
'Several boys from the gang have come to me in secret, asking
me for help and advice with getting out,' André says. Do
the gang leaders simply accept desertions? 'They never gave me
any trouble, but then I was such a wreck that I was of no further
use to them. Rather, they would have killed me if I had stayed
in the gang.' Surely, however, they cannot be pleased with the
work he is doing now? 'Well, you know, if you don't betray anyone
or join another gang, you can get out any time.' After a brief
pause, however, he adds: 'unless you know too much.'
The next day I meet up with Speed and his gangster friends and
they take me to a baile funk, a funk concert. Mounted on motorcycles,
we race up the hill. Outside the hangar-like music hall there
are hundreds of teenagers; another thousand are inside. It is
hot and it smells of beer, sweat and sex. Dancing girls are everywhere,
dressed in hotpants and miniskirts. Suggestively, they gyrate
their hips, some sucking their fingers, eyes fixed on some boy.
'Deliver me from evil!' reads a tattoo on one girl's back.
On the stage two MCs roar into their microphones. One has a
black revolver tucked inside his shorts. Their lyrics are about
violence, cocaine and other drugs, and sex, sometimes anal, often
brutal. Favela funk originated in the Miami Bass of the late Eighties
but today's funk DJs also use hard basses and techno rhythms,
laced with aggressive raps in Portuguese. Most balls are organised
by the gangs, to entertain the youth - and to drive up drug sales.
It is a world away from the samba and carnival, for which Rio
Across one wall is written 'I love life but the one who is in
love with me is death.' Next to it someone else has written, 'It
is better to lose a minute of my life than to lose my life in
a minute.' This can easily happen at a baile funk. Rivalling gangs
often clash at concerts. As in a ritual, they gather on both sides
of the concert hall and form a so-called 'corridor of death' in
the middle. Then the fighters go at each other, provoked by the
MCs and cheered on by the girls. Though the use of firearms is
usually banned, there have been numerous deaths over the past
years. Whichever gang eliminates most enemy soldiers, called 'Germans'
in favela slang, is declared the winner.
Speed wants to step out for a minute to get some fresh air.
Outside the exit he stops. 'There is Bill, el chefe,' he whispers
to me. Leaning against a car and surrounded by soldados, is a
white man with short blond hair. Low forehead, alert eyes, narrow
eyebrows and somewhat chubby cheeks. A bulldog. He wears white
beach trousers and a blue sleeveless shirt, with an enormous amulet
and thick chains hanging from his neck, all made of gold. Surprisingly,
he is not visibly armed. But perhaps he is being cautious after
rumours of his golden gun have caused the press and politicians
to put increasing pressure on the police to liquidate him. And
you do not need to read the newspapers to realise that this man
is a killer.
After his predecessor Lulu's death during the Dudu invasion
in May 2004 it was not clear who would succeed him. Initially,
Bill was merely primus inter pares, among four of Lulu's lieutenants.
A cat-and-mouse game began between the rivals and their followers.
Bill eliminated all of them, one by one, with golden shots. For
a few weeks he has been the sole ruler over Rocinha. Just for
how long his rule will last is anyone's guess.
Back in the Garota da Via Apia, two nights later, Speed sucks
nervously on his cigarette. 'There could be trouble tonight,'
but this is all he is willing to say. Again, many boys have gathered
in and around the bar, drinking beer, but the mood is tense. They
talk in low voices; the joints are passed around hectically. Even
the dealers, usually the epitome of relaxation, walk up and down
Suddenly, there is a loud bang. And another one. Bang, bang!
Everyone is looking up to the sky. It is fireworks. Up on the
rock, someone is launching rockets into the dark night that explode
into glittery gold rain and red and green luminescent balls. To
my surprise, the boys look relieved, some of them are laughing.
The boss's right hand jumps up from his bar stool to order a round
of beer for everyone. 'There is reason to celebrate,' says Speed
with a grin.
A group of soldados arrive at the Garota. They walk or rather
strut up to the bar and lean their rifles against it. First they
play it cool and let everyone wait for answers. Then the story
emerges: just one hour earlier, they attacked Vidigal, with a
dozen men. They climbed over the rock, sneaked into the streets
and opened fire. 'We took them by total surprise,' one of the
fighters reports, still out of breath. His face is distorted by
a broad and decidedly insane grin; his thick caterpillar eyebrows
keep twitching. Is it the adrenaline or cocaine after all? 'Some
of them did not even have time to reach for their guns. We got
four of their guys. One of them was all squealing and begging
but ban bang and that was it for him.'
The attack on Vidigal does, of course, have a sequel. The following
night, worried that Bill could bring the neighbouring favela under
his control (which might cause bribes to flow into different pockets),
the military police raid Rocinha. Several dozen men, flanked by
armoured jeeps, storm the Via Apia at dawn. Bill's men, of course,
were tipped off and have long withdrawn to a hide-out up the hill.
Witnesses will later describe how the frustrated police arbitrarily
snatch young men from the streets and their homes and beat them
up. People hear gunshots.
At sunrise all is quiet again. Police cars patrol the Via Apia,
no dealer and no soldado are to be seen. For one day, just for
one short moment, Rocinha is just a normal neighbourhood in Rio,
not far from the beach.