Last week, Brazil rejoiced in the four Oscar nominations received by City
of God, Fernando Mierelles' gruesome depiction of gang wars in the favelaa
shanty-town, often occupying a hillsidebearing the name of the film's
title. Meanwhile, in Rio de Janeiro a real-life drama, of a magnitude far
greater, appears inevitable in Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela.
Rocinha, owing to its
singular immensity, is often referred to as the "the city within the
city." It spreads out along western slopes of the famous Two Brothers
Mountain, on the northeastern fringe of the upscale São Conrado neighborhood.
Like Corcovado or Sugar Loaf, Rocinha's colossal sprawl is a highly-recognizable
feature of Rio de Janeiro's landscape.
In recent years, the estimated
250,000 inhabitants of Brazil's largest favela have lived in a stable
peace, under the benevolent iron fist of the drug lord Luciano Barbosa da
Silva, known by his moniker, Lulu. Now a vanquished drug lord, intent on returning
to his former glory, is threatening the calm.
It all began when Eduíno
Eustáquio de Araújo Filho, known as Dudu, who commanded Rocinha
in the mid-1990s, escaped from prison, by the front entrance, on January 17.
Soon afterward, leaders from the various favelas dominated by the criminal
organization, Comando Vermelho, or Red Phalanx, congregated and called
for an invasion of Rocinha to be spearheaded by Dudu, after Lulu refused to
relinquish control. At stake is Rocinha's lucrative drug trade, whose worth
police estimate at 10 million reals per week.
The police believe that
Lulu, who is 23 years-old, fell out of favor with the other Comando Vermelho
leaders following the arrest of Jorge Alexandre Candido Maia, an associate
of Brazil's most notorious drug-trafficker, Luiz Fernando da Costa, known
as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or Freddie Seaside. It is thought that Lulu, fearing
betrayal, facilitated his arrest.
Dudu is loathed in Rocinha
and residents believe it would be difficult for him to reclaim his old turf.
The police captured Dudu, 24 years-old, with the assistance of members of
the community in 1997.
"Dudu is an animal
and people here are terrified of him" one student said. "Everybody
heard stories about him raping girls and such. There was one story about him
burning alive a seven year-old boy for stealing. He would screw over anybody,
it didn't matter if you're a good person or not."
Dudu could launch an invasion
of Rocinha from the Vidigal favela, which occupies the other side of
the mountain. Several years back, would-be invaders from Vidigal were repelled
during a bloody, hour-long battle. A war in Rocinha could entail vans of armed
gangsters traveling along some of the city's vital highways to attack the
Also looming is the specter
of disruption on the major highway that runs by Rocinha, connecting the upscale,
mostly residential Barra da Tijuca to the South Zone and downtown of the city.
The police are under pressure
to act assertively to prevent what would be a highly explosive confrontation
at the heart of the city. In Rocinha, the sound of firecrackers explodinga
warning signal of police encroachmentgunshots, and helicopters hovering
overhead are now commonplace.
On February 8, a rare
nighttime offensive left three innocent people dead or seriously wounded.
Bullet holes in walls and shattered windows were ubiquitous in Rocinha's lower
regions where the bulk of the fighting took place.
"I was coming home
from work at [a hotel] in Copacabana and I had to wait, with a lot of other
people, for over an hour [outside Rocinha] until around midnight when the
battle ended and I could return home safely" recalled one woman. "Rocinha
has not been this dangerous in a very long time."
"That shootout was
the worst I can remember" said a 35 year-old shopkeeper who has lived
his entire life in Rocinha. "I have seen some bad things around here,
but never such an intensity of gunfire. The police don't accomplish anything
and they put innocent people in danger by shooting all over the place. They
only come in to tell the public that they are doing something. The reason
the drug-traffickers run things here is because the police left. If they want
to do something productive, they should come back and stay for 24 hours a
Most residents are deeply
skeptical of police actions and on February 9 over 200 residents streamed
into one of the favelas main streets to plead for peace, and protest
against innocent deaths that result from police incursions.
In anticipation of war
for the favela's drug trade, Rocinha's drug-traffickers are currently
recruiting soldiers in the community. They have asked owners of vehicles with
tinted windows to remove them, so they can monitor who enters and leaves the
favela. They have also recommended that residents keep off the street
after 10 PM until the situation is resolved.
Despite the climate of
tension in the favela, for the most part, Rocinha's inured residents
go about their normal activities.
"For a long time
it had been very calm here in Rocinha and we have made a lot of progress,
especially economically" said a 22 year-old man. "Now people are
very concerned, but we go on with our lives. You try to avoid certain streets,
like the ones where drugs are sold, because that is where shootouts are most
likely to occur. But people here are tough. There might be a shootout on one
street, and a couple streets away, business as usual."
Gabe Ponce de León is an American, but has been involved in the community
in Rocinha for several years and has a photography studio there. Comments
are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org