Articles

The Atlantic

The Battle of Rio

As the Olympics approach, the city’s embattled police invade the favelas.

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IT IS SUMMER IN RIO DE JANEIRO, and the snitch wears a ski mask. Two cops roust him from the Hotel Carioca, a short-timer’s dive of dead ferns, mildewed sofas, long gone dreams, faded South American charm. Early-riser traffic pushes past the samba halls in the Centro district, the corncobs and Skol cans of the night before piled at the culvert. The snitch limps along the sidewalk toward the police station, smoking a cigarette through the mouth hole of his mask.

Rodrigo Oliveira watches from the window of his second-floor office. “We shot this guy in the leg last week,” he says. “Now he works for us.”

The head of field operations for Rio’s Civil Police, Oliveira is beefy, like a bull, and that’s what the other cops call him. The Bull pulls a 55-pound flak vest over his head like he’s getting inside an old T-shirt. “If everything goes alright today,” he says in a reassuring tone, “shit’s gonna happen.” He greases the sweat off his bald head, rubs a hand over the bullet wound on his neck.

Oliveira and his lieutenants in the special-resources unit (known by its acronym, CORE) lean over a map of the São Carlos favela. The office door swings open and the snitch limps inside, still smoking. “Hey, my brother,” he slurs. The snitch trails a finger across the map, pinpointing a house where he says Oliveira will find a cache of drugs and weapons. He looks up at the Bull and laughs, gold teeth dancing.

Rio’s cops are not welcome in slums like São Carlos. They enter in armored trucks and helicopters, and they have tacit permission to kill: in 2008, they killed an average of three people a day, or one person for every 23 they arrested. In these neighborhoods, the government has virtually no presence, and the city’s three main gangs provide many basic resources, including natural gas and “security.” They also provide a steady stream of victims as they fight each other for control of the drug and arms trades. Death is not special in Rio. “If society is sick, it has to be treated,” Oliveira says. “Unfortunately, the drug we have to use is not so nice.”

This isn’t part of Rio’s international PR campaign—the beaches, the butts, the good times. It is only the reality of the city that will host the World Cup in 2014, then the Olympics in 2016. In preparation for these events, the state government has ordered sweeping changes in the police department, including restructuring its command, improving infrastructure, and increasing pay. More crucial, for the first time the police have begun permanently occupying favelas, dedicating up to 500 officers per neighborhood. But so far only a dozen of the roughly 1,000 favelas (some of which are home to 100,000 people) have been secured, and traffickers have migrated to other slums, where the fighting remains as brutal as ever. In November, it took more than 2,500 cops and soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers to subdue traffickers in Alemão, one of the city’s most notorious favelas.

The battles continue. Oliveira’s troops bark at one another, gathering courage as they exit his office, filing past a picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall. Oliveira grabs his rifle, a Swiss-made Sig Sauer that shoots heavy, .30-caliber bullets, illegal for traditional police use. The Bull bends the rules. He winks as he makes for the door. “Time to play,” he says.

DRUG VIOLENCE IN RIO DE JANEIRO can be traced to the 1960s, during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Imprisoned Marxist opponents of the official regime mixed with the violent population of the maximum-security penitentiary on Ilha Grande, just west of Rio. Spouting leftist principles, the political prisoners convinced the murderers and thieves to stop fighting one another and focus on their common enemy, the state. They urged them to join into a single organization that would rob banks and horde weapons, creating a socialist bulwark for the people in the slums—the favelas—which had grown up Rio’s hillsides like the scrub tree for which they were named, ineradicable and ever-blooming. The organization called itself Comando Vermelho, the Red Command.

That is the romantic story, and some of it may even be true. But the narrative didn’t hold. One by one, rivals and police eliminated the ideological leaders of Comando Vermelho. As the cocaine trade expanded in the ’80s and profits ballooned, the Marxist faction quickly devolved, its ethic discarded, turning into a cynical gang of pushers and enforcers. The charm of political purpose departed the rogues, the tropical city growing colder by degrees.

With the drug market flourishing, two rival groups evolved from the first: Terceiro Comando (Third Command) and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends). These three gangs now fight each other for territory and its resulting drug-selling points. Profits have stimulated an arms race, a trade in weapons from the continent’s scattered conflicts. This is the Movement, as the gangs have mythologized themselves, “life up the hill,” traffickers and trigger men taking cover amidst the populations of Rio’s thousand hillside shanty menageries. Tracer bullets score Rio’s night sky with such frequency that a tourist may believe the city full of falling stars.

“The favelas have a different law, a different economy, and their own defense forces,” says George Howell, the manager of the Rio office of the International Council on Security and Development. “The only way the police can go in is with mega-operations involving hundreds of men. These are incursions into foreign territory.”

Like any occupying army, Rio’s police routinely savage the law. Articles mount in Extra, a tabloid of colorful violence and fleeting celebrity: cops taking bribes, cops dealing drugs, cops selling their weapons to traffickers. The past two chiefs of the Civil Police are in prison on corruption convictions.

Cops have also been known to arrest traffickers from one gang and sell them to a rival gang to be tortured and killed. This is revenge without finality, a conflict with no mediator and an endless supply of impoverished sons from the favelas who want what they can only imagine. Knock-off jeans, a gold necklace, an automatic rifle at 13. Dead by 20. That’s what they get. Death comes quickly, and from many angles. Most cynical of all is fogo amigo, friendly fire, when a cop murders a partner who’s too clean, then kills a kid from the favela, shoving pistols into their dead hands, staging a battle that no one will ever bother to investigate.

In this war, it’s difficult to root for anyone to win. Or to locate accountability no matter how high you climb in the chain of command. The city’s South Zone—the postcard quarters of Ipanema, Copacabana, and Leblon—remain largely free of violent crime. As the state keeps up appearances for the tourists, protects the wealthy Cariocas behind their fortress high-rises, José Mariano Beltrame, the Secretary of Security for the state of Rio, prevaricates. “Rio is only dangerous in areas where drug dealers act,” he says.

This is what Rio has, a war that is part of the municipal mood. You hear about it on the beach under the sun, at the juice stand and in the sidewalk bar, before the soccer comes on the TV hanging above the pyramids of maracujá, before the people get too drunk to find it interesting anymore. “They killed 10 guys yesterday,” they say. Or they say, “They killed three.” It is the score of Rio’s never-ending game.

THE DRUMS MAKE CARNAVAL. They pound through the blocos. They pound through the sambódromo, and through Maracanã. Without the drums, there is no motion, the skirts do not catch on the wind. Without the drums, a samba is just a tune, Rio just another pretty face. The drums repeat like rifle fire, like the helicopter blades that ratchet overhead, bisecting Centro’s commuter traffic and giving sound to that other part of Rio, to life under elected government, “life on the asphalt.”

Oliveira’s cops gather in the parking lot, where it is 100 degrees. The symbol of CORE is painted high on a wall: a skull atop crossed rifles, a dagger jammed through its cranium. “It means that we own death,” Oliveira explains.

It is stifling inside CORE’s armored truck, which Oliveira’s men call the caveirão, “the Skull.” It is an encasement of black steel, with gaps drilled along its surface through which CORE’s muzzles take aim at the world. A dozen cops pack tightly against one another on a double-backed bench. The stink is heavy. “We have only crackpots here,” Oliveira says, taking a seat up front. “They’re laughing their heads off when they’re being shot at. You have to have cold blood.”

The Skull clears Centro’s traffic with its siren, leading a convoy of seven police trucks past busy cafes and sidewalks full of day walkers. The people stop what they are doing and stare at the Skull as it passes them. A woman rushes out of a store and corrals a child indoors.

Better than anyone, Oliveira understands the hazards of his world. He is the one who should be dead these last three years. He took a bullet in the neck during an operation in the Coreia favela, spilling a gallon of blood in the dirt. “October 18, 2007,” Oliveira says. “My second birthday.” He returned to action with barely a delay, a bandage on his neck, the slug still lodged behind his larynx. “I had to,” he says. “Otherwise, you’ll see ghosts.” Why chase ghosts, when you’ll be one yourself soon enough? Oliveira knows that helicopters will buzz his funeral, that his cops will toss flowers from the open chopper doors and onto his fresh grave. That’s what they did for his friend, Dudu Cacique, a chopper gunner shot between the eyes three years ago. Oliveira’s end will be full of flowers.

Oliveira, 39, made his name in the kidnapping business. When he took over as chief of the anti-kidnapping division’s tactical unit, in 1999, Rio suffered from an epidemic in abductions for ransom, with about 30 cases per month. Within a year, Rio’s kidnapping business was no more. “The government gave Rodrigo permission to kill every kidnapper he could find,” says a police source. “They wanted these people to know that kidnapping in Rio was finished.” I asked Oliveira about this one afternoon in his office; he just smiled.

Oliveira grew up in the shadow of Maracanã, Rio’s colossal soccer stadium, but his interests carried him elsewhere. He trained in jujitsu with the Gracie family, the creators of mixed martial arts. A black belt, Oliveira won the South American jujitsu light-heavyweight championship, in 1991. He served a stretch in the Brazilian army, then joined the police. “My life is fighting every day,” he says. Sometimes fighting for principle. A former chief of police once leaned on Oliveira to solicit money for his political campaign. When Oliveira refused, the chief fired him from his post at CORE, banishing him to a suburban beach community, a career dead end. Oliveira returned to CORE only when the chief was arrested.

“Rodrigo has a special reputation,” says Camilo Coelho, a crime reporter for Extra. “Everyone knows him as a tough guy. But he also has real integrity. He can be chief of police himself one day.”

THROUGH THE FILMY WINDOW slits of the Skull, the Christ the Redeemer statue grows distant amid the clouds of Corcovado. Rattling over the potholes in the road, the Skull accelerates, leaving downtown. The convoy passes through a neighborhood of patchy vacant lots, towers of trash, streams of dead bicycles. “As you can see,” says Flavio Moura, a senior officer seated next to me, “this is not so nice as Copacabana.” Several cops hang their heads and shut their eyes, visualizing what is about to come.

The convoy enters São Carlos. The people on the street pay the Skull little attention. They glance at it then turn away, acknowledging a frequent visitor. Standing in front of a store, a single young man continues to stare at the vehicle. A cop points a finger at him from inside the Skull, taking aim. “Target face,” he says.

Oliveira braces himself as the Skull pulls to a stop. He expects to face up to 60 heavily armed traffickers, with only 50 cops. “I’m not here to kill anybody,” he says. “But I’m not here to die.”

The Skull opens and the Bull vaults into São Carlos. The other CORE cops file out behind him and secure a small square, their eyes scanning the rooftops. Following Oliveira, they slip through an alleyway and vanish into the favela. Shacks made of slag, tin, wood, and mud cover the hilly terrain. Rebar and drainage pipes poke from slanting concrete walls. The humidity intensifies the stench of excrement. Securing jagged corners and blind alleys, the cops skate through a heavily vegetated area.

Through the canopy comes the muffled sound of a helicopter, circling overhead. The cops tread along a slope that is strewn with garbage, silent, their radios chirping like birds. There is a rustling nearby, and the cops raise their guns to fire. But it is only a chicken walking through dry, fallen leaves.

The cops reach a hilltop, and Oliveira takes a breather, sweat dripping off his nose. An old woman folds laundry on her porch. Children and young men walk by, heedless of the police. Life “up the hill” proceeds. Graffiti on a nearby wall reads I don’t know. I didn’t see. I’m not a snitch. Let me go.

Five shots erupt down a nearby slope, then several more. Oliveira rushes toward the sound and the other cops follow, navigating steep, crumbling stairways between houses, negotiating paths of countless blind spots. A window shutter flaps in the breeze on a squeaky hinge. A dog barks, stepping from a shanty to watch everyone pass. A woman gathers several children into a clapboard shack, then closes the unpainted husk of a door behind her. A sign on the door reads, “For Sale.”

The snitch was right. Four suspects are holed up in a shack, trading shots with police. The helicopter gunners open fire, and so does Oliveira, his .30-caliber bullets shredding the shack’s thin walls. The cops unload more than 100 rounds. From inside the house, a man yells in pain. In the chaos, the suspects bolt out the shack’s back door and scatter through the shanty labyrinth, trailing the blood of the Movement.

Oliveira and his men chase two of them to the bottom of the hill, where a paved road marks the boundary of São Carlos. Oliveira’s men emerge from the vegetation, their rifles clenched, stepping onto the evenly paved street. Two cars on the road brake suddenly, then execute hurried U-turns and speed away.

The suspects have vanished. At a nearby gas station, an attendant gives Oliveira a lead: he saw a man hobble down the hillside on a wounded leg, then jump into a taxi. Later that afternoon, CORE will arrest the suspect, nicknamed D2, at a local hospital. In total, the unit will arrest six traffickers, kill two, and seize a stash of guns, ammo, and narcotics.

The cops guzzle water in the shade of the gas station’s canopy. But the day isn’t done. Oliveira has hidden a small unit of men inside a shanty, waiting for the traffickers to reemerge after the shooting dies down. “Like Troy,” he says. “Instead of a horse, we use a house.”

Oliveira smiles through his fatigue, growing reflective in the lull. “It’s a good life,” he says. His radio crackles. “My wife asks me, ‘When is the day that you’re not going to do this anymore?’ I’ll know it one day when I know this is not my war anymore. Nowadays this is my war.”

Shots ring out from up the hill. Oliveira’s head jerks to attention. His eyes sparkle. He has new energy. “It seems to be music,” he says.

The shooting intensifies. The ruse has worked. The cops pile into the Skull and race back up the São Carlos slope. In a few minutes, four cops appear, each holding a corner of a bedsheet, bearing a limp body. Along a dusty row of shops, the favela’s scattered residents look on, determining the identity of the dead.

OLIVEIRA MATERIALIZES FROM CENTRO’S afternoon haze, guiding his Harley Dyna through traffic, through “life on the asphalt.” Another day, and another operation has ended. Up in his office, Oliveira looks weary, his eyes gone slack. “Today a man faced me,” he says. “And he died.”

An hour before, Oliveira was crouched against the wall of a house in the Turano favela. CORE cops flushed a suspect in his direction. Looking up, Rodrigo watched as the barrel of a .30-caliber Sig Sauer poked through the window of the shanty. “No one has this rifle,” he says. “When I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, that’s not possible. Only I can have this weapon.’ I said, ‘It’s your time.’”

The suspect leaped from the window. Oliveira fired. One bullet struck the man in a leg, severing the femoral artery. Another barreled diagonally through his torso, ripping through his organs and blowing a hole through his ribcage. The man twisted uncontrollably through the air, landed hard, tumbled down a hill, ending his run against a pile of rocks.

Oliveira unzips the man’s backpack. Inside is two kilograms of crack, one solid block the size of a large pizza. He holds the dead man’s Sig Sauer, the stock and firing mechanism glossed with blood. Oliveira’s eyes cast to the floor. “It’s one more death on my shoulders,” he says. The room falls silent.

Then Oliveira’s chin snaps upward. “It’s Friday,” he says. “It’s hot. Let’s get a beer.”

Oliveira and his lieutenants enter A Cappella, a Portuguese café down the street in the Lapa district. This is their refuge, a quiet place to refuel after an operation. But today A Cappella is overrun with politicians and state officials, who fill the room with loud chatter.

The state Secretary of Transportation is here. The Secretary of Sports. The presidents of two Carnaval samba schools. Assorted cronies in Panama hats graze on rice and beans. These men are from Mangueira, one of Rio’s biggest favelas, where CORE operates with brutal regularity. “They don’t like us,” Oliveira says. The cops and the politicians exchange charged glances as Oliveira’s men take their regular table. “But we don’t like them. So it’s OK.” Photographers snap away, blasting the room with light, the Mangueira crowd jockeying for position in the frame. “Politics,” Oliveira huffs.

Food arrives at Oliveira’s table, and talk shifts to the morning’s operation, and to the dead man. “That guy came tumbling out of the window,” says Flavio Moura.

“A triple pike somersault,” Oliveira says. The CORE cops laugh darkly.

“I give him a six,” says one of the cops.

“I give him a ten,” says another, holding up two palms.

Someone else says, “seven and a half.”

“We’ll give him an eight,” Oliveira says with finality. He raises his arms above his head, his hands misaligned. “Because when he landed, one arm was here, but the other was here.”

Lunch ends, the cops working toothpicks around their mouths, leveling their cold gazes across the restaurant. I lean over the table to Oliveira. “The man you killed today,” I say, “did he die instantly?”

“I think so,” he says. “Because where he landed, he stayed.”

“Do you think he felt any pain?”

Oliveira shakes his head. “You have two, three seconds to think about your life,” he says. “When I was shot in the neck, I thought about my life. It was like a filmstrip. And it goes by very fast.” He peers into his coffee cup. “So I don’t think he felt any pain.” The Mangueira politicians burst into laughter. Several cameras flash. Oliveira isn’t distracted. This is his place. He just raises his voice. “I think he thought about his life. And then it was finished.”