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.


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