Beyond the lives of Rio de Janeiro’s poor, I obtained rare access to key aspects of the city’s society, from the upper echelons occupied by the very rich, to the highly dangerous domain of the drug gangs and the elite police forces, in order to portray the city who’s motto might be to “Live and let Die”.
Eight times more children die a violent death in Rio than in Israel or the West Bank. The “beautiful” city, as it is known, of approximately 9 million inhabitants, lives under the declared war between the city’s four main drug trafficking factions on the one hand, and the police forces on the other.
‘Guerra Urbana’ – the war between drug gangs – kills more than 40,000 people a year in Brazil. Amidst the broken and maimed lives this war generates, the ‘cariocas’ as people of Rio are known - rich and poor, alike - endeavour to live under the permanent threat of violence as though nothing was wrong in their topographically sun-blessed city.
Much of Rio’s urban violence is generated and perpetuated by the wars between rival drug gangs and often by the regular incursions into the favelas by the Military Police, the BOPE and CORE divisions - Rio’s elite police forces - designed to combat the extensive drug trade.
The ‘traficantes’, drug dealers, are kids. The foot soldiers are barely in their teens and into their early twenties, but may have already been involved in the organisation for several years, and for sure will not make it into their thirties. Approximately 80% of the police are known to be corrupt, demanding bribes to supplement their meagre incomes. Young boys from the favelas pay police 20,000 Reais to ensure they do not infiltrate their favela, or boys buy weapons from them - 8000 Reais for an AK-47. Those same weapons then kill police.
Rio is surrounded by some seven hundred favelas – urban slums - housing more than two million people, which dot the city’s landscape. The poor and the middle classes live side by side. Rocinha, Rio’s best-known favela and Latin America’s largest, with a population of about 150,000 has an enviable view of Rio and the Atlantic Ocean, and is sandwiched by two of Rio’s most upmarket neighbourhoods – Sao Conrado and Gavea. During my stay in the city, a full-blown unofficial ‘war’ was declared between two rival drug factions within the ‘Comando Vermelho’ – Red Command. Confusingly they were both from the same faction, trying to take control of a highly lucrative section of trade within their organisation worth US$3 million a week. Eventually the young drug ‘lord’ Lulu, 28 was murdered by the police in one of their regular incursions into its narrow alleyways. His rival ‘Dudu’ was buying time and waiting for the right moment to take control of what used to be Lulu’s turf, which he was hoping to overrun whilst the other was alive.
The drug trade as Rio knows it today, took hold of the city in the 1960’s and 70’s. Today the trade is a significant motor of the economy, it has helped take a minority out of poverty, but has cast a long shadow of insecurity across much of the city’s residents. It is very common to hear people lamenting the good old times when the city was a haven of peace and good living. Today the level of violence is such, and so constant, that the upper and middle classes seldom go out in the evening, preferring to entertain at home. The rich cocoon themselves within high security fences short-circuit television cameras and round-the-clock bodyguards. Those who can afford it or who feel threatened because of their ‘celebrity’ profile (actors, singers, politicians, musicians, businessmen) take extra precautions and bullet-proof their often imported, chauffeur-driven BMWs, Audis and Mercedes.
For rich and poor alike, side by side, life goes on. The city’s prisons and jails are full to breaking point (308,000 inmates according to national statistics) with an almost exclusive poor, black population from the city’s slums. Meanwhile, the rich and the middle classes take their children to expensive private schools, the young and the not so young set are seen sampling the delights of Rio’s exclusive ‘fashion mall’, or going for a work-out or full body massage at the city’s most exclusive ‘A’ class health club – the ‘Estacao do Corpo’ – whilst their children’s nannies, known as ‘Babas’, walk the children around one of Rio’s very few open squares in Ipanema, famed for its iconic beach.
In the noble district of Joa, the rich have private security on the streets; 24-hour camera surveillance systems and most have a second safe, containing a few thousand dollars and some fake watches to deceive thieves, should they break in. Emergency buttons connect the privileged directly to the police … but just like the residents of the favelas, the rich don’t trust police much either.
If the affluent ever make trips to the 700 poverty-stricken favelas surrounding Rio, it is only to buy their drugs - a thrill, an exciting story to tell at parties.
The world famous Copacabana Palace Hotel hosts an elegant 1000-guest wedding reception for a well known Brasilia politician, Sergio Cabral Jr - many of Brazil’s power brokers and socialites are invited. The guests are graced with a lavish and sumptuous sit-down dinner amidst the décor of one of Brazil’s top interior designers. Spread out across three vast ballrooms a choir, a jazz band and a classical pianist play.
Outside on a warm summer’s night, the revenge killings continue - an incessant battle for control of rival drug gangs’ turf. Over in favela Pixunga, a gun battle erupts where two rivals gangs want control of the favela’s trade. Using M-16 army assault riffles, 9mm pistols, ‘home grown’ and army supply grenades, they battle it out for five consecutive hours. Two dismembered bodies are found next morning, dumped on the roadside linking “Ilha Governador” with Rio. The craters left by the bullet holes are testament to the ferocity of the gun battle.
The following night in the same favela, four young teenage boys are picked up and executed on the edge of the Guanabara Bay - a stone throw from Rio’s International Airport. They are more than likely revenge killings by police.
Amidst all of Rio’s contradictions, life does continue, as does business and the business of art, music, theatre, beach football and the making of future football and Soap Opera stars. Nonetheless, crime and insecurity pervade the air. More than one taxi driver pointed out to me, ‘when I leave for work in the morning, I pray that I’ll return home safely at night’.
Rio, the ‘beautiful city’, may be famed for it’s exotic women, erotic carnival and stunning scenery but as these photographs depict, the favelas, the rival drug gangs and the regular incursions by the Military Police overshadow any sense of security - for everyone. Commissioned by GEO Magazine.