A world without smiles
By Lunaé Parracho
The northeastern city of Salvador, Brazil’s third-largest, is a major tourist destination thanks to its beautiful beaches and popular festivals. Its Carnival is considered the world’s largest street party.
In spite of being idyllic in so many ways, this city suffers from an unprecedented explosion of violence in recent years, part of a national phenomenon with the migration of violence towards the north. While the murder rate has dropped more than 63% in the southeast in the past ten years, it has increased 86% in the northeast. That is according to the 2012 Map of Violence compiled by the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies.
In Salvador, the murder rate has risen over 250%.
One of the police officers I spoke to summed up the situation clearly with his own personal tragedy. “We’re living in the middle of a war. I try not to leave home, and when I do I’m armed,” he said, asking to remain anonymous. He knows what it’s all about – his son was killed recently by a thief to steal his iPad. Just a teenager, he died as he was returning from school on the street near their home in an upscale neighborhood.
Across the city in the Fazenda Coutos slum, Lucia Menezes, 53, avoids going out too. “I only leave home to go to church,” she told me. Lucia also lost her son Ebert, 24, shot by police in their neighborhood on the city’s outskirts. The police allege that their patrol was shot at by five men, and that Ebert was hit during the firefight. Neighbors and family say that Herbert was not a criminal and was unarmed, and that he was shot in the back of the head.
Heartbroken, Lucia said she fears the police and therefore will not pursue punishment for her son’s killers. “God will be the one to judge this, because Jesus has eyes of fire.” She would still like to see the results of a real investigation only to have her son’s name cleared. “He was not a bandit,” she said.
Ebert’s sister Cintia, 30, observed graffiti on a wall in memory of her brother, nicknamed Kiko by his friends. “They have no right,” she sighs. “I’m more afraid of the police here in Fazenda Coutos than the bandits. At least the bandits here respect us.”
In the slums of Salvador, complaints against the police are constant. People who live in areas controlled by drug gangs are mostly afraid to identify themselves, and suffer intimidation by police who use excessive force.
Ana Claudia, 39, is another mother who lost her son, Reinaldo, in Fazenda Couto, in the worst of circumstances. Last December 22, she saw Reinaldo, only 14, being beaten and shot dead by traffickers from a rival slum. “We live a war here. My son’s massacre lasted more than 30 minutes. Neighbors told me they called the police, but none ever showed up.”
Reinaldo’s father carried his son in his arms to the hospital, but he died before arriving.
Scenes of violent crime are part of daily life here. During the night of Good Friday, the body of a woman shot in the face was abandoned on a street in the neighborhood of Ondina, and a 16-year-old youth was killed with four shots in the back in the Alto do Cabrito slum.
In an attempt to contain the explosion of violence, the state government began to install what are called Community Security Bases, similar to the Pacifying Police Units (UPP’s) in Rio’s favelas. One police captain told me that the bases have succeeded at reducing violent crime drastically, but that shootouts between drug gangs and police are still common.
Another officer said he only accepts criticism from someone who has actually driven into the area known as Nordeste Amaralina. This neighborhood is one of frequent exchanges of gunfire and several policemen have been shot on duty there. Unlike other areas of the city where traffickers avoid direct confrontation with the police and focus on disputes with rival gangs, in Nordeste Amaralina the police itself is the target.
Accompanying the police on foot or in a car you can feel the tension in the air and the imminence of the worst. They don’t put down their weapons even for a moment. On one patrol the police tensed up as we went past “shooters alley” and “rifle wall”, two places where frequent shootouts have left their marks of different calibers.
In Areal slum, a threat to the Community Security Base was painted on a cross with the word, “UPPzinha,” in clear reference to Rio’s Pacifying Police Units, but in diminutive sense. Completing the graffiti was the drawing of a pistol, interpreted by the police as a threat to them.
An old lady who preferred to remain anonymous says the police presence has greatly increased, but the traffickers remain. “They are just more hidden,” she said. She told me that every time her daughter’s boyfriend wants to visit them, they have to request permission from the drug gang. The appearance of strangers in the neighborhood attracts suspicion.
Far from having an easy explanation, violence in Salvador is entwined with serious social problems. Ana Claudia, the mother who saw her son being killed, said, “Young people here don’t have options. They are born and raised in the conflict. Our class is not valued. If you say you live in the suburbs you’re seen as a dealer or thief.”
In another slum on the outskirts, a group of traffickers accepted my request to photograph them. As I was explaining the purpose of my story, they suddenly ordered me to cross over to the other side of the street. Some spotter who I never noticed had warned them that police were approaching. They were five youths leaning against a wall at the end of the street, guns in hand, in silence. One crouched down, peering around the corner every few moments, while talking on the phone.
I sat on the curb, where I could see them and where they could see me. I thought it best not to photograph that moment because we had an agreement not to identify them in the photos. A police raid was the worst thing that could happen right then, I thought, because it would be too much of a coincidence for them to believe. The tension lasted for 10-15 minutes, until they said “all cool,” and one of them gestured at me with the revolver in his hand, to cross back over. From what I gathered, it was a regular police foot patrol and the traffickers try to avoid confrontations. Their greatest adversaries are other traffickers from neighboring slums, and the sense of impending clashes, with the expectation of the arrival of police or an attack from rivals, is part of their daily routine.
One of them, who goes by the nickname Giant, 17, said he joined the gang to defend their community from traffickers of a rival slum. “They oppress our community and I never liked oppressors, so I joined the movement. I killed one of them with four shots, and then I began to feel like another person.”
Giant added, “If we don’t kill, we die.”
Another gang member, Poison, 18, was a student at a school in a neighborhood controlled by rival traffickers. He joined the gang when the the others pursued him to the point where they shot up his father’s store. At times of high tension between the gangs, even non-members suffer reprisals. “We protect the community from the enemies, and when we can we help the needy, buy them cooking gas, food,” he said. “I made the decision to live from crime, but we live in humility and with respect.”
Firecracker, 22, worked in a market when he was 14, and and was mistaken for a thief by the police. “The police took me to a secluded place and beat me bloody,” he said. “I was disgusted and very angry, and the devil got into my head. That was when I got involved in trafficking.”
With no way out, pursued by the police and attacked by rival gangs, they all have different stories and different motives. But one comment by another of the gang, Pilintra, brought nods of agreement from all of them.
“What I miss the most, every day, are smiles.”