Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cops and Robbers: Surviving Rio's Favelas


Normally police are not to be acknowledged. Not because I have a problem with them, but because those were the orders I was given day one in the favela. So I walk past them like they don't exist, looking only at the cold steel in their hands. I’ve never had a problem with cops. I grew up in Caucasian-dominant suburbs of Philly far from racism and police violence so I didn’t grow up hating them, but living here, its hard not to learn to reflexively dislike them.

Cops come in packs, never individually. Two is rare but you see it occasionally on the main street. Normally they roam in groups of 4-6 with at least one m16 the rest with handguns. Sometimes holstered, other times cocked down towards the ground, but always hands on and ready to shoot.

My first encounter with cops with guns was at a bar outside of my house in Pavao. They surrounded a kid about 10 years old who was cringing in a corner. They yanked him into the middle of the street and pointed an M16 in his face before letting him scurry off. They may have had reasonable cause to suspect the kid, but he was just a little kid.

I had never seen anything like that before. They showed no respect. Just hostility. That day I understood all of the hate.

B.O.P.E also known as the skulls were made famous from the movie Elite Squad. They were black uniforms and when they come up, you go home. Generally, it’s not much of a problem for me in Cantagalo because most of the searches go on in the upper mountain sides of Pavao. The 5th station or Vietnam. I live far from there.

This dude turned out to be quite the dick. 
Made me delete the pics and almost broke 
my phone.  Their faces are blurred because 
he threatened me. 

C.H.O.Q.U.E is another special force. Not sure what their purpose is but they definitely carry heavier artillery than your everyday patrol and respond violently to attempts to take their picture.

Generally, on the main streets of the favela cops are not an issue. They are ghosts that pass by solidifying themselves occasionally to ransack your backpack and question you.

The cops from last night were a different story. It's not uncommon for the to walk through the neighborhood pointing guns around corners and up the small alleyways that lead to the darker recesses of the favela but these guys were different. I saw them emerging from the entrance to a ditch where my friend and some other people had built their houses (straight up squatter style). There was one guy climbing out with an m16 and one guy posted up in front of him. I continued my trajectory as normal; cops, after all, can be treated as ghosts unless they chose to materialize. It wasn’t till I was passing the first two cops and continuing up some steps that I realized I was heading straight towards the barrel of a handgun some 15 feet in front of me.  I fell back out of the line of fire (glaring at the mofo of course) and waited for his two friends to scurry past him up the stairs, he then lowered his gun and continued past.

I covered the distance and started up the stairs where the guy had been standing with the handgun only to be faced with the barrel of an m16 at the top of the next staircase. The rest of the squad, about 6 more cops all had their guns out and were clearing the areas to the left and the right.

There was a guy next to me also ascending to his house. I looked over at him not sure what to do. Normally I would just walk past them and off to my house, but these guys seemed to be up to something.

He just looked back and told me to wait. The street was narrow and it was better not to get used a shield. So we stopped to wait while the cops continued swinging their guns down the narrow passage.

“Nico!” Someone called my name. It was the little girl with pink kimono that never comes to training because she has no one to take her (that's the excuse at least). I miss her and make the precarious climb down to her house every now and then to talk to her mom. It was the treacherous path down to her makeshift house that the cops were climbing out of when I first ran into them.

The rest of the way home was start, stop, start, stop as me and the random dude from around the way waited for the cops to sweep through the narrow streets. One always stopping and pointing his gun back towards us. Two going out in the front with guns pointed forward, and the others with guns pointed to the flank accessing the multitude of nooks and crannies that lead off to unknown places.

When we got to my own little ally I had to stop once again because the guy was posted up at the top of the stairs. I just stood there staring at the guy as he pointed the gun down the street, and he just stood there watching me watch him. As soon as he was called to move to the front of the formation,  I moved with him, slipping behind him and skipping down the stairs in the darkness.  I continued along a parallel street until I got to my house and had to slip past them once again to get unnoticed into my house.


The favela is like a labyrinth. I had descended a level and continued alongside next to the cops... just 10 feet below them with a few building in between. The dark alley I had turned down opens up into a small space right below the corner. The cops who had arrived shortly before me and were breaking shit (chairs and umbrellas probably) above my head.

I generally wear a hat and a backpack and drugs are sold out of backpacks (which is why I think I get stopped and searched all the damn time), so as I emerged from the dark ally I put my hands up and walked as quickly as I could (without running) to my front door. I didn’t want to get shot and frankly, I don’t want them to know where I live.

I had to go out about an hour later and the cops were still holding down the corner. They were searching people with flashlights.

I’ve been searched there before. I was walking by minding my own business when a one of them popped out of the darkness gun in hand. I was surrounded actually, but their black uniforms did the trick, and I hadn’t noticed what I was walking into.

I’m not saying all cops are bad, but here they sure as hell not making any friends in the community.

While I consider Cangatalo to be a safe favela, there's a war going on in the Babilonia favela at the end of Copacabana beach and a lot of violence going on in Rochina, another favela often frequented by gringos.

Last nights gunshots in Rochina. 
One of the kids from the project was home worried about this mom.

Video compliments of HT 
Muito obrigada 

B.O.P. E entered Rochina looking for the right hand of major traffickers but the operation resulted in a 5-hour shootout. Watch here

Funding shortages mean cops don't have the resources they need to keep favelas pacified. That along with gang conflicts in places like Copacabana have caused a serious increase in violence in the last couple of months.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Strangers with Candy

Its been 3 years since I've been home and in that time I've been subjected to a lot of strange faces and random places.

Right now (or when I started writing) I'm sitting in Starbucks writing while my computer is being commandeered by two Russians that were recently robbed in Lapa. I've been coming here a lot to work to an employee asked if could help them out, my services have been paid for in a shit ton of free sugar.

They sell this overpriced Red Velvet cake that looks pretty fake here but whatever its my favorite and I've only had 1 Red Velvet cake in the 3 years that I have been away (not counting the Easter cake that was made for me for with beets to make it red, if we count that then I've had two).

If anyone really knows me they know I love Red Velvet and White Russians... but you know... a different kind of White Russian.

My life is punctuated by random events like this one, but thats cool, I wouldn't have anything to write about if it wasn't.

When your really far from home, sometimes its the small things that make you feel better and the strangest people that save your ass. This blog is a shout out to all of the random people I have stumble across along the way. Its far from complete but I have training so if I left you out...sorry.

Mr. Xere... who was forced to cut his Dreads in pursuit of a job

Digo Xere is hands down the person that I know the least but has helped me the most. Digo is a native born Curitiban who I happened upon one day in a park in Sao Jose do Middle of Friggin' Nowhere. I was writing in my composition book and he arrived shortly afterwards with a joint and slack line. Digo is a skinny dude in his thirties with dirty blonde dreadlocks down to his butt. As I was getting ready to leave the park, curiosity got the best of me and I just had to ask who did his hair. I love and miss my parents dearly... but my hairdresser... god how I miss my Kimisha

Backstory: I moved to Curitiba last august 2015 to train with PRVT. Problem was I wasn't in the city I was living in the middle of nowhere. Then I got hurt so I was stuck in Curitiba for 5 months and couldn't train and didn't know anyone. Oh and I wasn't IN Curitiba. I was in some small random town close to the airport but far from the city... far from everything actually.

Anyway, a week later I was meeting up with Digo at 5:30 A.M so he could accompany on what would be the worst medical fiasco of my life. (I had my hair done by then too). That first morning (of many early trips to different hospitals) it was cold and rainy. I had to climb out of my house because there was no electricity to open the door to the car port. I arrived at the appointed corner all sorts of pissed to find Digo happily smoking another joint (is weed legal in Curitiba? no. no it isn't).

 No one from PRVT asked to take me to the hospital. Not then. Not later. Not ever.  No one even asked if I was ok. If it wasn't for Digo I would have been wandering around Curitiba blind with my hair in all sorts of disarray. I didn't even get to say a proper goodbye before the team picked up and moved to another city (well first they moved me to a favela so I couldn't really see Digo even when I was still there). I leave so much disappearing has become second nature to me.

A group of Germans that came back to Connection Rio 
for a second time (I don't have pictures of the people I'm writing about)

 Next Up....

While exiled in Curitiba I also met a guy named John Smith. Mr. Smith hit me up via Facebook about the acquisition of some event tickets. I had no idea who he was nor did I really have time to find out between training and then subsequently getting hurt and wallowing in self pity. That did not stop him from sending me money for ADCC tickets a major submission grappling event that took place last year in Sao Paulo and of course I was recompensed for my struggles as getting anywhere in Curitiba without a car requires walking for at least 30 minutes or waiting for a bus for at least an hour!

I met Mr. Smith shortly after the tournament when we both found ourselves in Rio. Turns out he real name is Tavares and he is a big Terere fanboy. We talk often. He's from Alabama,  has two young sons that wrestle, and often holds my kids down with money (like for Brazilian Nationals... and the next competition!)

Barbin and JayJay are two of the most interesting strangers that I met here in Rio. Jayjay is a friend of a former Connection Rio guest who was put in contact with me while I was in Curitiba. Before meeting JayJay in Rio I heard a lot about his escapades in Argentina and Uruguay. Jayjay is in the military and apparently uses all his free time to travel. He hit up a couple countries in a small amount of time before making it to Rio and is planning another trip soon.

I met up with Jayjay and Barbin one day at Bibi's sucos. Barbin... I can't remember for the life of me how I know him, but I know him... and it turns out JayJay practically did too. Barbin and Jayjay came to Rio on the same flight, they live in the same state, and that was not the first time that they had been on vacation at the same time in the same country. Instant Bromance was started. They can thank me later.

I don't drink a lot, but when I do, I go to my shitty sushi place and get Caiprinhas for r7! Barbin knows all about that and I plan on finding some shitty food places with good drinks when I make it to New York.

Last but not least there is Ze. Ze is the fake name of one of my favorite, friendly neighborhood lookouts. After several late night mishaps that compromised my living situation in Pavao (the other side of the favela) I saw myself forced to relocate to an area of the community known as the Gaza Strip (well it was known by THEM but not by ME at the time). Ze worked the night shift right outside of my door so he was always there to greet me when I got home from training. He made it to an orange belt in Jiu Jitsu before getting sucked into the life. Money and kids keep him from training. Ze is a straight up dude and we got along well except for nights were he would get bored and listen to music a little too loud a little to late.

A lot of people are scared of drug dealers because they have guns. I'm not. I'm scared of crackheads because they lack logic. Ze kept the crackheads off my door steps and ensured that I could sleep peacefully with no fears of home invasion. The day I was supposed to turn in my key and evacuate the Gaza Strip was one of the worst weeks of my life, I cam pretty close to spending the night sleeping next to him (technically this girl offered to let me sleep on her couch but she was trying to sleep with Ze so she had no intentions of going home before the wee hours of the night so... yeah). At 11:50 at night I was still in the strip with nothing but a fridge, my kimono, and the key that I was supposed to turn into another dealer (and my landlord) before 12 A.M.

Some of my kids on in the favela

I'm not about to tell you this whole story for free. But the gist of it was that in a city full of friends and people I pay for to compete in tournaments, when I needed someone the most, the only person around was a stranger slinging crack on the corner and a 16 year old girl. 

There have been a lot of other random people that have come in and out of my life over the past three years. Sometimes its hard to invest time and energy in a person that you know is only around for a couple weeks or a couple of months, but at the same time its nice to be able to have a drink with a cop from the Carolinas (because when you live in the favela you don't  hang out with cops), pick up some editing tips from a dude from Canada and I even met someone that delivered a baby with a headlamp... that last one blew my mind. 

Ok I suck at goodbyes. and ending blogs.

I'm going to do Yoga at the project.