June/July 2002

Silencing the Witness

He used to dress for the occasion. Once he dressed
as a blue-collar worker to show the bad work conditions
at the Rio's subway. Later he became a truck driver
to denounce corruption at the Highway Patrol.
More recently, he checked into a detox clinic
to feel the drama of drug addicts.

Rodolfo Espinoza

Tim Lopes belonged to an almost-extinct group in Brazil, that of the investigative reporter. And he was a pure breed of this rare species. Many times during his three decades as a reporter he mixed into the circle he was going to write about in order to get the inside scoop and insights only intimate familiarity can bring. His death at the hands of Rio's drug lords has shocked and enraged Brazil. Weeks after the assassination, the police hadn't either located the main suspect of his death or recovered the body of the reporter.

In the early '70s he dressed as a blue-collar worker, for example, to write an article for alternative newspaper O Repórter on the bad work conditions at the Rio's subway construction site. Later he became a truck driver to better denounce corruption at the Polícia Rodoviária (Highway Patrol). More recently, already working for Globo TV, he checked for two months into a detox clinic to show the drama of people hooked on drugs.

Just last year he won the most prestigious prize of the Brazilian media, the Prêmio Esso, using a hidden camera to show how drug trafficking operates inside Rio's favelas, the shantytowns built on the hills around the city. He obtained his images for the three-part report "Feira de Drogas" (Drugs Fair) at Favela da Frota, in the so called Complexo do Alemão, close to Favela Vila Cruzeiro, the place he was last seen.

Authorities concluded that Lopes had been killed, after testimonies from other criminals who confessed having seen the execution. The Globo TV reporter disappeared on June 2, in a funk ball in a favela where he went to investigate residents' complaints—the Police had been warned, but hadn't done anything—that drugs were being freely sold and gang leaders were forcing minor girls to have sex with them.

Tim Lopes was born Arcanjo Antonino Lopes, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, but while still a child moved to Mangueira—the same place that gives name to the famous escola de samba (samba club)—in the North Zone of Rio. The Tim nickname from childhood was adopted as his professional identity. His parents were very poor and, in the late '60s, the future reporter started working as an office boy for now-defunct weekly Manchete magazine.

He would work as reporter for several publications including the three most important dailies in Rio: O Dia, Jornal do Brasil and O Globo. Lopes started to work for Globo TV, Brazil's leading TV network, in 1996. Easy going, he loved to tell jokes, and bohemian, he enjoyed drinking at night with friends and dancing in gafieiras (lively popular dance parties). As for his writing, some editors didn't like his adjective-laden style and would cut his baroque prose to the bone.

Journalist Arthur Dapieve, who worked with Tim in the Jornal do Brasil, tells that the newsman was also a great inventor of terms and expressions. "It was he who, writing for the Jornal do Brasil's city section, baptized as mauricinho that all-dressed-up guy, who everybody knew existed, but didn't know how to call. The female of mauricinho, patricinha, appeared soon after, so they would happily reproduce themselves, until today, in the nights of all Brazilian cities. See the irony of him as father of mauricinhos and patricinhas. He was a smiling mulatto, always in a Bermuda short and a T-shirt, who loved samba, Vasco da Gama (a Rio soccer team) and beer."

The Police Story

According to police reports, Lopes was killed by drug lord Elias Pereira da Silva with a Samurai-like sword. Da Silva, better known as Elias Maluco (Deranged Elias) had been release from prison in July 2000, after four years of incarceration. During all those years the state was unable to build a case against the drug dealer, while his lawyers used delaying tactics that included not showing up for hearings in court.

Elias Maluco is now the boss of 10 favelas that are part of the Complexo do Alemão. The DRE (Delegacia de Repressão a Entorpecentes—Drug Enforcement Headquarters) estimates that the drug lord has an arsenal of 250 guns and possesses a 400-employee work force, including security people and salesmen, all connected by radio and cell phones.

The police were told about the details of the murders after detaining three suspects. They said that, before being killed, Tim was tortured and subjected to a mock trial staged by Da Silva plus three other drug dealers: André da Cruz Barbosa, the André Capeta (Satan André): Maurício de Lima Bastos, the Boizinho (Little Ox); and Renato Souza Lopes, the Ratinho (Little Rat). Ratinho was one of the drug dealers who were shown in the award-winning report "Feira de Drogas."

The detainees told police that Tim was at first shot on the foot so he wouldn't be able to escape. This happened in front of some caves that are known as microwaves due to the fact that they are used to burn people killed by the drug traffickers. They also graphically described how Elias Maluco thrust a sword against the reporter's chest cutting him from the neck down to the belly button: "His blood spilled on all of those around him."

One week after Tim's disappearance, the police occupied the hill where the reporter had disappeared and the usual weekend funk ball was suspended by the authorities. Many days of search for the journalist's body, however, were fruitless. While searching for Lopes's body, the police found several signs of the hills' lawlessness. They discovered, for example, a clandestine cemetery with bones of scores of unknown victims and holes being readied to receive fresh bodies.

Commenting on Lopes's assassination, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso called it a "heinous crime and an attempt to silence media reports about drugs." The Rio de Janeiro's Journalists Union, after expressing its outrage at the killing, accused of unfairness and opportunism those who expressed the opinion that the reporter had been reckless and irresponsible for entering the favela the way he did.

Daily Jornal de Brasília, in an editorial, complained that the media covering of the TV reporter's murder was overblown. The newspaper called attention to so many anonymous deaths in similar circumstances that are not mentioned not even in the internal pages of the newspapers.

Drug Empire

Tim's death called the attention once again of Brazil, and the Rio population in particular, to the precarious state of the state authority in the country. It's estimated that one million people or around 20 percent of Rio's population lives under other laws than those of the rest of the nation in the 605 favelas of the city. They are controlled by at least 10,000 well-armed people linked to drugs. Policemen are known to refuse to go to some areas at night fearing for their lives.

Roberto Aguiar, Rio's secretary for Public Security, says that drug trafficker with vulgar names like Deranged Elias do not represent the base that produces violence: "These people who head gangs in favelas have to be captured because they are psychopaths, but they are not the big shots of the system. They are medium agents. We should look for the bosses rather in the social columns than in the paper's police section."

In an article for Rio's daily O Globo, Miriam Leitão, who usually writes on economy, used the murder of her colleague to demonstrate that Brazilian authorities lost control of the favelas in Rio: "We already knew that, but it became scandalously explicit now. There, the law, the order, the distributor of basic services to the population, the creator of jobs, the real authority are others. It's not only the old fight of the police against the outlaw. It's more complex than that. You can't build a network so powerful without connections with the police and other powerful people from this side of the world.

"In the favelas, the traffic is the main economic activity, the main source of income, one of the greatest job generators, and, in many areas the only social assistance people get. And it is, most of all, the only established power because the state has been impotent… The drug activity in the favelas corrupts and oppresses our poor in order to offer the goods consumed by our rich."

The murdered reporter was writing a book on samba, which included profiles of several sambistas from Rio. The work was being written in partnership with his longtime friend Alexandre Medeiros, who intends to finish the book by himself. "It will be painful," Medeiros said, "but I will go ahead and write the book as an homage to him."

Reporter Cristina Guimarães, who worked with Lopes in the "Feira de Drogas" piece moved out of Rio soon after the TV story was aired. She said she had to leave due to a series of threatening calls. The reporter also sued TV Globo in the labor court, accusing the company of not offering her adequate protection. Ms Guimarães was told by favela residents that there was a 10,000 dollar prize on her head. The reporter contacted the Amnesty International in order to ask for asylum in a foreign country. Nobody knows about her whereabouts.

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