Here is part one of two posts on the violence in Rio last week. This post will cover my perspective from the ground, and the second one later this week will be a more comprehensive analysis that will cover more of the facts and media coverage.
When I first touched down in Rio after being away for over a year, I was initially stuck by the fact that I couldn't find Igreja da Penha, the gorgeous church that sits on a lumpy hill visible from the international airport. It's a beacon I look for every time I fly into the city, a kind of welcome I look forward to every time. Since I'd flown a different airline that arrived at a different terminal, I figured I wouldn't be able to see it this time. Little did I know that Penha and the surrounding favelas would become Ground Zero of one of the most violent weeks in recent Carioca history.
The next day, the reports started to trickle in, and a distinct nervousness began to percolate through the city. Drug traffickers were setting fire to buses and cars, including in the Zona Oeste where we were staying. Others had attacked a military police station. The evening news reported that imprisoned Rio traffickers that had been transferred to a maximum security jail in Parana had sent out the order by cell phone, allegedly to protest the presence police pacification units in several Rio favelas. It reminded me of the rash of violence in Sao Paulo that happened in a similar manner, a terrifying period that later inspired the movie Salve Geral.
By the second day, the newspapers were embossed with photos of blazing buses, and people in the streets were glued to the TVs in juice bars and cafes to watch the news. RJTV, the local Globo station, began running extra coverage, calling in experts to analyze the recent events. The police began a full scale operation to combat traffickers in the favelas, which Globo would later proclaim was the largest operation ever in the city. People seemed to be getting more and more nervous, but I wasn't terribly worried. We hadn't seen anything happening that we'd seen on the news, and the city seemed to be business as usual. But stories of terror throughout the city passed from friend to friend in furtive bar chatter, from relatives on anxious cell phone calls, and on Twitter, and it wasn't always clear what was true.
On Wednesday, I was running errands with my brother-in-law, his fiance, and my sister-in-law (who had stayed home from school for fear of the violence). We were in Zona Oeste, doing typical pre-wedding things like picking up suits and getting party favors. We made a quick stop at a grocery store when the bride to be got a call from her father, who we'd just run into on the street. There was a shootout taking place just a few blocks away, in a place we'd been just minutes before. She went into panic mode, urging us to leave NOW. We reasoned with her, pointing out it was probably safer to stay inside. We didn't come across anything on our way home though, and we all breathed a sigh of relief to get back safely.
Then the attacks began to escalate, and on Thursday, we were at a bar waiting for a friend and noticed everyone glued to the TVs. The news was showing images of heavily armed bandidos fleeing a recently invaded favela on foot and by truck and motorcycle. The video was unnerving, bringing the question to mind: how had Globo managed to capture the escape, but the police had seemingly done nothing? Cariocas watched the scenes played over and over in shock and disbelief.
That night, we were hoping to wander around Ipanema a bit, but we noticed that stores were shutting down early and while in line at a drugstore, the check out lady got a call, apparently from her boss, telling her to shut the store down in an hour. When we walked outside, everything was literally shutting down, and there were few people on the street for the early evening - it was eerie. So we hustled home.
By Friday, the city was in a state of panic, and I was starting to worry. Cariocas deal with violence on a regular basis, and seeing them get more and more anxious was almost scaring me more than the actual attacks and warfare. At the hair salon, I watched the news out of the corner of my eye, noticing that Globo had outfitted its reporters with bright blue bullet proof vests, complete with a Globo logo. I found a newspaper to flip through as I waited for my sister-in-law. Globo had issued a special edition, with a huge headline declaring it was D Day for the war on drug trafficking, with a political cartoon showing Cristo wearing a police cap and vest. There was an article about how the army had been called in to work with the military police, and later in the day I'd find out that Eli's cousin's husband, who was staying with us, in town from a neighboring state, had been put on call to be deployed if necessary (fortunately, he wasn't). People began calling to say they wouldn't be able to make it to the wedding because they were afraid to leave their homes. My sister-in-law had invited a bunch of her school friends and only one came - because she lives near Vila Cruzeiro, where one of the police operations was taking place, and her mom reasoned it would actually be safer for her to spend the night across town.
The wedding went perfectly and we all had a great time, but around eighty people out of 240 guests didn't come. I had to avoid looking at the empty tables because they broke my heart. When Eli's cousins drove back to Zona Sul at around 2AM on Avenida Brasil, one of the major highways connecting downtown Rio to the suburbs, they told us they were one of just a handful of cars on the road.
Over the weekend, o bicho pegou, so to speak. The military and police scaled up their operations, invading Complexo do Alemao, one of the most dangerous favelas in the city. Arrests were made and contraband was recovered, and by Sunday afternoon, the armed forces had declared victory. On live TV, soldiers erected a Brazilian and Rio state flag from one of the highest buildings in the favela in an attempt to reassure the populace that the government was finally in control and that the violence would stop. At the time, I was eating lunch with my in-laws, and people warily watched the so-called victory over bites of fish and French fries. The scene reminded me of George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" extravaganza; people did seem a little more calm, but it was hardly the end of Rio's violence woes. Fortunately, though, the vehicle attacks petered out by the next day, and the city was almost back to normal by Monday.
On the way back to my in-laws later on Sunday, we were driving through Zona Oeste, and I was chatting with my sister-in-law in the back seat. All of the sudden, we heard a loud pop-pop-pop sound coming from the side of the road. My sister-in-law went silent and turned white, and I suddenly stopped breathing and my heart missed a few beats, before we realized it was just fireworks. But that one moment of terror finally made the week's hellish violence real to me.
What struck me the most about the Rio events was how it was made into a spectacle, a kind of Carnival of violence, with everything broadcast live on TV - scenes of gunfire, fires blazing, tanks rolling through the streets, reporters ducking behind barricades, and traffickers being arrested. The mind-boggling thing is that what took place in terms of police action in Alemao could have happened at any time, months or even years ago, but didn't, due to a lack of political will and an unfortunate dose of corruption and cooperation with traffickers. Finally, when the public pressure became too much, finally the politicians were forced to bring in the big guns and launch a full scale invasion to bring the favela under government control - at least for now.
As our flight to New York taxied on the runway, I finally caught a glimpse of Igreja da Penha, and watched it until the plane rounded the corner. TAM shows commercials before takeoff, for some reason, and I absently watched one for Bovespa and then a commercial from the Brazil Tourism Bureau:
And as the slightly cheesy commercial came to an end, I inexplicably burst into tears. It killed me to leave a place I love so much, that no amount of violence or fear can keep me away from.