When I reached the Chapeu Mangueira favela in Leme, a slum that borders on Copacabana, I was expecting to do a story on a martial arts school for poor kids. But there I met “Nativo” (Native), expert in what is today called MMA/NHB, or Mixed Martial Arts/No Holds Barred fighting. Nativo is the nickname of Fabio da Conceicao Ventura, 25, a lifelong resident of the same slum. Nativo told me how he was born in Chapeu Mangueira, and when he was just five he watched his mother set fire to herself to escape her miserable life. Two years later his father kicked him out of the house and he found himself on the streets.
In the streets Nativo learned to steal before joining up with drug traffickers. He told me how he first liked to rob tourists on Copacabana Beach, but then how it was really being part of a drug gang that made him feel most protected. He made it obvious to me that the gang came to be his family. With them he would spend hours consuming drugs and taking care of business inside the slum.
I started to photograph him and accompanied him around the narrow streets of the favela that was “pacified” by police in June, 2008, as part of a government program. Nativo showed me the places where drugs used to be commonly sold, and where he sat with his rifle giving cover to the gang.
In one corner he showed me where 12 of his companions were massacred by a rival gang. Several times while walking around he acted strange, scaring me like someone I always hoped not to come across on a dark street. He said to me, “I’ve done all types of evil, including things that you can’t even imagine.”
At the age of 18, Nativo was drafted into the Navy, where he remained for two years. During the first week he was arrested for beating up a marine he believed was homosexual. Even while serving in the military, Nativo never stopped his habit of stealing. “That was what I liked doing,” he explained. After the Navy he returned to the favela, the drug gang, and his old way of life. Change came for him one day when, after being arrested for dealing, he was convinced by a jiu-jitsu trainer to take lessons. In a short time he became an expert, and went on to excel at boxing and then MMA.
Today, the former trafficker gives boxing classes and competes in MMA bouts. MMA fighters use techniques adopted from jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling, muay thai, karate, and other martial arts. Nativo has fought and won all of his first four bouts.
As I said goodbye I asked him how he managed to escape from the gang. “I was rescued by Jesus from hell,” he answered.