I’m still losing friends

December 18, 2012

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Ricardo Moraes


Rio de Janeiro is a truly diverse city where people of different types and economic classes live side by side. Many of its slums, or favelas, are strongholds of drug gangs who openly operate with high powered weapons in full view on the streets.

Despite the violent scenario, this mix of races and economies is the beauty of our city, and on the streets we are all the same people, and our friendships are as diverse as the city.

Being raised in a typical neighborhood, I’ve had my share of sad experiences related to violence, mostly in my adolescence by losing friends who became involved with bandits, or seeing some wonderful people losing their way with drugs. Every day we heard stories about young neighbors who had bad luck or made bad choices, and ended up in jail or were killed by the police.

Sometimes, such stories were about close friends, who grew up next to me.

It was very sad to see teenagers lose their lives so young, before they could find a better way of life, find their happiness or at least make a new start. Ever since I became interested in journalism, I wanted to tell those same stories of others who were just like those I knew.

The conflict in Rio is about drugs and money; gangs battle for the control of markets in the favelas, which for the record are poor neighborhoods filled with mostly good people. There, with their weapons and the absence of State, they create their own rules. But the drug gangs are not alone in capitalizing on slum dwellers’ fear. Militias, or paramilitary groups, charge the residents for security and basic services like transportation, cable TV, and bottled cooking gas.

Covering this conflict is very dangerous, and photographers have to be aware of everything happening around us. The goal is to keep ourselves safe in the middle of shootouts between police and traffickers. We use safety equipment gear and are cautious, taking one step at a time. In many slums we are not able to come in, and the police can only patrol inside armored vehicles.

Lately, Rio’s state government has started a program called UPP (Peacekeeping Police Units) which permanently bases police inside the slums. The pacification starts with a big operation to dispel the traffickers from the favela, ending their power over residents. The program is also working in upscale neighborhoods, such as those neighboring on the venues of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, as well as in some favelas identified as the most dangerous.

The program seems to be going well in some places, but in some others, drug bandits have managed to remain hidden, and continue to challenge the police. They continue to offer drugs in back alleys, and often confront police with guns. The worst scenarios now, are in Rio de Janeiro’s far outskirts where many traffickers from the pacified areas are moving to and entering in battles with existing drug gangs for control of their turf.

After losing some of their main markets, drug dealers began to sell crack, the worst drug I have ever seen. Crack is so terrible that even traffickers used to forbid the sale because of the problems caused by addicts, such as an increase in assaults and degradation of the neighborhoods. Now, big areas of Rio de Janeiro’s outskirts must be avoided at all cost. In such places it is possible to see how a human being can be devastated by a drug and become real life zombies.

During recent years we have sadly lost colleagues covering violence. My first photo editor was kidnapped by the leaders of a militia while he was living inside a favela to work on a story about the life of residents. He and his team, a writer and a fixer, were tortured and left along Avenida Brasil, Rio’s main access highway. The bandits were arrested and a big police push against the militias began.

The editor, who survived, has since been living in hiding, far from the city, his friends, and relatives. During this past year, cameraman Gelson Domingos, of a local TV network, was shot dead while covering a police operation in Antares slum. He was following the police and stepped out from behind a tree to film armed bandits during the shootout. He was safe behind a wall, but followed a police officer to a closer spot and took one more step to film the traffickers. That was his last step.

Missteps by neighbors, missteps by friends, missteps by colleagues. The violence is still in my face and I’m still losing friends.

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