With only days remaining until the start of Carnaval, and after weeks of escalating violence confirming the sudden emergence of powerful militias in the city, inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro were again left reeling this week as details emerged of the most recent chapter in the city’s brutal descent into archaic lawlessness.
Six-year old João Hélio Fernandes was killed on Wednesday night after being dragged through the city’s North Zone, suspended from the rear door of his mother’s stolen car as teenage bandits sped past horrified onlookers and a routine carjacking turned to tragedy.
In the wake of the latest heinous murder to rock Rio and with a rapidly-worsening conflict between militias and drug gangs on his hands, state governor Sergio Cabral was expected to ask Alberto Gonzalez of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for help in combating the city’s cocaine-fueled violence, during a meeting this week in Brazilian capital Brasília.
The request follows a post-Christmas period in which policemen have been ambushed and murdered and packed public buses incinerated by traffickers.
Like a Paper Airplane
Fernandes’ mother and sister were ordered from their car at gunpoint Wednesday night. After exiting the car, Rosa Fernandes tried to pull her son to safety, but the assailants sped off, trapping João’s seatbelt in the door. The boy was dragged alongside the car for five miles. He is thought to have endured the ordeal for around ten minutes before dying of head injuries.
Police and journalists alike wept openly as the horrific remains of João’s corpse were removed for burial. Two teenage gang members were quickly arrested and charged with manslaughter after the eldest, Diego Nascimento da Silva, 18, was denounced to the police by his father.
The second, a 16 year-old minor who could not be named by police, was charged as an accomplice while a known associate of the two was released after questioning. Under Brazilian law, the accused are likely to spend five and three years in jail respectively.
Witnesses say they saw the car speeding so quickly along the streets that João was flying alongside it, undulating "like a paper airplane." Scores of horrified onlookers screamed at the driver to stop, but da Silva was heard shouting that the boy was his "Judas doll," referring to a Brazilian tradition in which dolls representing Judas are punched and exploded.
A motorcyclist pursued the vehicle, pleading with da Silva through the driver’s window until a gun was aimed at his head, forcing him to desist. One man later spoke of seeing the boy’s "little body" hanging in fetal position behind the rear wheel of the car, decapitated, a stream of blood in its wake.
When the car was finally abandoned, the assailants fled to their favela homes and then into hiding, but they were quickly caught after da Silva’s father called police and told them his son had admitted to the crime.
The boy’s death is the latest episode in an escalating climate of brutality, in a catastrophically corrupt city where two percent of murders are solved and the only consistent law and order has long been meted out by the rival cocaine gangs who fight for control of the city’s more than seven hundred favelas, or slums.
Gangs maintain medieval codes of law, extorting money from residents and handing out death sentences to anyone who dares to cross them.
Fernanda da Cruz, a nineteen year-old favela resident, told me of the death of her seventeen year-old sister: "She was dating a drug dealer and the rule is, you cannot break up with a dealer. He can have as many girls as he wants but no-one may leave him. My sister broke up with the guy and he came back to our house later that night and shot her in the head." Fernanda went on to tell me that her youngest sister, aged three, had recently left kindergarten because it was "too violent."
In 2002, Brazil was appalled by the murder of TV Globo journalist Tim Lopes, who was kidnapped and cut into small pieces with a samurai sword after attempting to film traffickers forcing girls to have sex with them at one of Rio’s notorious "funk balls."
Lopes’ murder may have been the incident which forced home the reality of life in the favela for those who dare not step inside it, but as 2007 gathers pace, it is becoming clear to even the richest and most privileged citizens of a place which boasts one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world that the most beautiful city in the Americas is a paradise already lost.
Reality was highlighted in November 2006, when the 58 year-old socialite ex-wife of billionaire businessman Germano Gerdau was shot dead at the wheel of her Mercedes in Leblon, Rio’s richest neighborhood, by a thief on a bicycle.
The city’s violence has been worsening for decades, particularly since the early nineties, when cocaine gangs began reaching Colombian proportions. There are so many guns in the hands of the city’s cocaine-addled youths today that routine robberies have turned into routine murders, and the ruthless Military Police who patrol the city’s streets are estimated by human rights organizations to be eight times more likely to kill than be killed.
Now though, a new player is emerging. Militias comprised of current and former policemen, prison guards, and firemen are forming to eject drug gangs from the favelas – something the state apparatus has only ever been able to achieve temporarily.
Unlike the police and the army though, the paramilitary groups stay in control of conquered favelas, filling a power vacuum and essentially replacing the drug gangs as extorters of money, or "security taxes," from the favela’s population.
Openly recruiting new members on ‘Orkut’, Brazil’s Google-operated alternative to My Space, the militias have surged since early 2006 and are now thought to be in control of around 100 favelas in Rio.
The state’s politicians are publicly appalled by the success of the militias, with Cabral labelling them "the end of the world." If they can be controlled, however, they may actually aid the state in its bid for the favelas.
But as drug dealers are driven out, where will they go instead? The acts of terrorism which claimed so many lives in December were claimed by traffickers who had lost their territory to militias, and Comando Vermelho, Rio’s most powerful gang, promised a "river of blood."
Whether attributable to Rio’s principal gang or to smaller players like those who killed João Fernandes on Wednesday, that river is certainly flowing. Now, after a miserable early summer of heavy rains and endless violence, Rio needs its Carnaval like never before. The police, right on cue, are threatening a strike over wages.