According to locals, the first shots were fired just after the final whistle.
Brazil's biggest football clubFlamengohad just beaten Vasco da
Gama 3-1, winning the state cup. Fireworks exploded over Rio's gargantuan
Maracanã football stadium, tinting the sky with the team's coloursred
North of the cityin
the long forgotten Baixa do Sapateiro slumthe crackle was of gunfire
and not fireworks.
"The drug dealers
were celebrating the Flamengo victory by shooting," says human rights
activist Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who works on the next street at Projeto
Uerê of which she is president.
"So the police came
in and in 10 minutes there was a war here."
Located at the entrance
to the Baixa do Sapateiro favela, Oliveira Street was full of people
when the shooting began. Though the road sits just a few hundred metres from
the motorway, which links the International Airport and Rio's chic South Zone,
it isn't a place familiar to most Cariocas, let alone visitors.
A stone's throw up the
road is the 22nd Police Battalion. Residents say the police arrived
in two cars, shooting down the street in the direction of Praça 18.
When the firing stopped six people lay dead.
"They were all workers,
good people," said one member of the community.
The next day, the rubro-negro
(red and black) victory was splashed across the front pages. Nowhere was there
any mention of the six alleged victims.
"People aren't interested,"
says de Mello. "They don't care. Many kids were shot here last year by
police. Who cares? Brazilians get tired, we lose so many lives here."
"I was in Vigário
Geral the other day and 14 people were killed, but it was not in the newspaper,"
According to de Mello,
who worked with the street children of Candelária, exterminated in
1993, the press were ordered not to film in the favelas, after the
brutal murder of journalist Tim Lopes in 2002. Lopes was filming undercover
in a nearby favela, when he was caught by traffickers and hacked to
death with a samurai sword.
"Sometimes they call
me and ask me to take the kids out of the favela for them to film,"
she jokes grimly.
There's hardly a building
on Oliveira Street unmarked by bullets. The rickety footbridge, which crosses
its putrid canal, is pockmarked from the previous days shooting. "They're
from a pistola. That's what they [the police] tend to use," says
P., a local 17-year-old.
"Welcome to Vietnam,"
says another, half-joking.
It's not the only wartime
nickname the locality has earned.
Worse than Gaza
"They call it the
Faixa de Gaza [Gaza Strip] around here, too," points out English anthropologist
Luke Dowdney, who works in the nearby favela of Nova Holanda. The comparison
with Israel is not without basis: between 1987 and 2001, nearly 4,000 Cariocas
met violent deaths, compared to just 467 in the West Bank, an actual war zone.
On the ground, a handful
of rusty, spent 9mm Luger cartridges (a bullet widely used by Brazilian police)
signals that the Sunday evening shootout was not the first in the area.
Baixa do Sapateiro is
one of 17 favelas, which form the notorious Complexo da Maré,
a labyrinth of slum housing, which houses some 110,000 impoverished Brazilians.
"It's mais ou
menos (more or less) around here," says teacher Liliane França,
23, who has worked in the area for two years. An 8-year-old student standing
nearby is quick to correct her. "Muito tiro," she says. "Lots
"We have to try and
get on with it," explains França, in her cramped classroom, which
incredibly hosts 40 local kids at a time. "The kids aren't to blame,
so we try and leave their problems outside."
For the younger generations
of the Baixa do Sapateiro the problems are numerous, foremost amongst them
the three-way drug war being played out in the area. Baixa do Sapateirocontrolled
by the Terceiro Comando (TC) or Third Commandis hemmed in by two rival
One hundred metres from
Yvonne Bezerra de Mello's Projeto Uerêan educational project,
serving children from the local communityone of several sewage outlets
marks the border with Nova Holanda.
Though you could almost
jump across the heavily polluted waterway, the two communities are inseparably
divided. Nova Holanda is the territory of an enemy drug gangthe Comando
Vermelho (CV) or Red Commandand is out of bounds to those from this
particular part of Maré.
The border, or "fogo
cruzado" (cross fire) as it has come to be known, has been the scene
of countless gun battles in recent years, as the drug gangs attempt to expand
their drug market.
"You can see there
are bullet holes on both sides of the bus stop," says social worker Ayrton
Ribeiro as we turn off the frontline, onto the street which links Baixa do
Sapateiro and Nova Holanda.
Beside the squalid canal,
which marks the divisa (division) between `TC' and `CV' land, is a
so-called `Brizolão', a primary school built by former governor Leonel
Brizola. Its wallslike most around hereare riddled with bullet
holes. More cartridges litter the floor. The playgroundin a no-man's
land between rival snipershosts a midday kick-about.
Drug, a Way of
The presence of the movimento
(one name used for drug traffickers here) in Baixa do Sapateiro is barely
masked. Within 300 metres of its solitary PPC (Posto de Políciamento
Comunitário or Community Policing Post), three bocas (drug markets)
function openly, selling cocaine and marijuana at all hours of the day. On
the police station's veranda sits an officer in his fifties, glasses perched
on the tip off his nose, studying the newspaper. Two large fans are trained
on his body, fending of the stifling heat.
According to Ayrton Ribeiro,
the coordinator of Projeto Uerê, a tiny fraction ("0.000001 per
cent," he says) of the community are involved in the drugs trade. Though
other residents contest this figure, what is certain is that 100 per cent
of the favela's 6,000 residents are affected dramatically by the drug
"You never know when
it might start. The shots could come from either direction," Ribeiro
explains, taking me along one of the community's main streets, past a string
of market stalls.
directly and indirectlyare often those who suffer the most. Locals say
around 200 local kids are caught up in the drug trade. In the neighbouring
community of Vila do Pinheiro (controlled by a third and smaller faction,
Amigos dos Amigos) the figure is slightly higher at 300. Taking the Complexo
da Maré as a whole, it is thought some 2000 young boys, between 13
and 18, are involved.
Though it is all to easy
for the area's younger generations to become involved in the cocaine trade,
the issue of education is much more complicated. So much as getting to school
can be a challenge.
"The main problem
is the three comandos in this area," says de Mello.
"You have 3 kinds
of ghetto. People can't go through the other comandos. Because of this
can't go to the schools. Here in the Terceiro Comando we have
three schools. [But] the kids can't go to school because three schools is
not enough for this area and they can't go through the other comandos
to go to school."
Even for those enrolled
in local schools, a lack of funding means that there are often not enough
"According to a recent
study, 60 percent of kids don't finish school in Rocinha. Here the figure
is maybe 70-75 percent. They don't have teachers."
The situation is identical
across Rio's periphery, says de Mello. "It's the same thing everywhere,
in Nova Iguaçu, Duque de Caxias."
As well as being terrorised
by the drugs trade, locals also suffer from staggering rates of unemploymentaround
70 per cent according to Ribeiro.
"There's no income,"
de Mello explains. "Most of the families live with R$ 65 (US$ 20) a month.
They don't have money to even buy gas for cooking. Or they don't eat or they
eat very badly. Some of them chop the furniture to make fire to cook. It's
unbelievable 20 minutes from downtown Rio."
Yet in spite of the enormous
problems facing the community, some locals describe their community with fondness.
It's Home, After
"It's an ok around
here," says one 42-year-old housewife, brought up in the community when
it was largely made up of wooden huts on stilts. "There's just a few
coisinhas (little things), that spoil it like the traffickers"
"It's a good place
to live," says E., a 17-year-old, from the nearby Complexo do Alemão,
who has lived in the area for eight years.
E., who until recently
worked for the Terceiro Comando in a local drug den, nearly lost his brother
two years ago when, aged nine, he was shot twice in the chest by police during
a shootout on the border with Nova Holanda. When E. became involved in the
drugs trade his mother fled the community, to live in another favela.
"At the moment it's
a bit violent all over the Complexo da Maré," he admits. "But
I like it. We just need to know how to make our community better because it's
really cool here. There's lots of movement at night."
De Mello says many residents
have come to accept the cycle of endless everyday violence.
"That is their everyday.
For them it's normal. They don't know otherwise. When you take a kid out of
the favela the first thing they ask is, `In your house do you have
"They think, `There's
violence everyday, why should I not be comfortable with the situation.' It's
the absolute norm."
Sat in the classroom of
her projectfounded in 1997de Mello is pessimistic about the future.
"There's no future.
This is it for them: the telenovelas (soap operas), the baile
funk (funk ball) and the drug dealers. That's the life."
The buildings in this
part of the favela were constructed eight years ago by a government project
At the time, the authorities,
apparently without the slightest sense of irony, dubbed this particular project
`Morar sem Risco' or `Live without Risk'.
It is another grim echo
of the state of unofficial civil war that exists within the Complexo da Maré,
and in other parts of Rio's periferia (periphery). Though the community
is living a period of relative calm, the shootings, between police and rival
drug traffickers, continue.
Human Rights campaigner
Marcelo Freixo said he would investigate the alleged shooting on Oliveira
Street on April 18.
"It happens a lot,"
admitted the Global Justice activist. "Three weeks ago, I received information
that, in January, five boys were killed by the police in the favela
of Caju. They had been executed by the police
three were thrown into
the canal and another 2 taken to the hospital but all were dead.
he said, "it is a permanent reality in Rio de Janeiro."
Tom Phillips is a British journalist living in Rio de Janeiro. He writes
for a variety of publications on politics and current affairs, as well as
various aspects of the cultura brasileira. Tom can be reached on