This is a story I wrote and turned in to an independent publisher called The Places We’ve Been. It’s about my first intense experience living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. It was chosen to be included in the book, Field Reports From Travelers Under 35 which has already come out! and can be bought starting August 26th on amazon.com.
I’m lying in the bottom bunk of my bed in the largest favela in South America. It’s 8:30 a.m. and there are fireworks going off that sound a little too close to home. I recognize a bunch of short pops followed by two big booms and it becomes obvious that this is the known warning signal for people out on the street to duck into the nearest house and stay low to the ground. This community, Rocinha, with its history of conflict between local drug factions and police, has grown eerily accustomed to recognizing such instructions and sounds.
With a brain still foggy from a night out, I head into my roommates’ room when gunshots start firing. The signal had already woken them up and we trade surprised looks at how alarmingly close the shots now sound. The morning noises that I usually hear from inside this house’s front door have been silenced. No plastic flip-flops slap the ground, and no early neighbors on the street shout a good morning, “ Bom dia!” This silence unnerves my ears almost more than the gunshots. Inside, we all try to stay low and away from the windows. Val, the oldest daughter of the family who lives here in the house, runs down from the top floor, wide-eyed after seeing my empty bed. At first, she’d assumed the worst, thinking I hadn’t made it home last night. Everyone inside is still unsure of why we’re hearing a shootout so early at 8:30 a.m.; the assumption is that the Pacification has come, when government forces will begin to move into the favela and “rid it” of street organizations and drug dealers. This push to pacify the favelas has been spurred on by the close approaching World Cup and Olympic games, both to be hosted in Rio. Even living here for as short as two weeks, I can see that this plan is slightly askew.
While Pacification in theory seems a sound idea, all residents suffer; some from stray bullets and daily inconveniences; others because of the cousins, sons, nephews, fathers, and brothers of this community for whom the police are about to decide their fate. Many men will be killed, some will go to jail, and others will go into hiding or flee. Their tension radiates and touches us all.
After what seems like hours—probably only fifteen minutes have passed—the firing dies down and I hear a slowly emergent bustle beyond our door. Someone clicks on the television to find out what happened. The news reports that ten bandidos have taken guests hostage at the local Intercontinental Hotel, but the situation is now “under control” and nobody has been hurt. The bandidos have been arrested and their mug shots are being dramatically splashed across the screen. That explains the loud exchange of gunfire, as the Intercontinental is a five-minute walk down the hill from our house. Over the next few days, those of us inside Rocinha came to learn more than the news reported: The group of bandidos had been escorting the dono (drug lord of this territory) home from a party when they unexpectedly had a run in with a group of cops. The chase led to the hotel, where holding anybody hostage was probably the last thing on the bandidos minds. The encounter with the police ended with jail time for the men, and a “score” for the police as the government sets out to increase public support for the idea that a quick Pacification is necessary.
On a typical morning walk to the neighborhood’s Instituto Dois Irmãos, where I teach English, Spanish, and art, I pass at least fifteen bandidos, each armed with a variety of AK-47s, grenade belts, and backpacks of ammunition, always ready for battle should the moment arise. Walking alone and being a girl with dark hair, I don’t usually draw too much attention. But this morning, I am with another volunteer, James, who is helping me get the morning round of coffee for all the teachers. As volunteers, bandidos don’t have a reason to mess with us. The institute is well known and has been around for more than eleven years. But this morning a bandido walks up to my friend and grumbles the words, “ Te mato.” I will kill you. James rolls his eyes, grabs the coffee, and we walk back to the institute. “What was that about?” I ask. “They think I look like a cop,” he tells me, clearly showing that this is not the first time. Apparently he specifically looks like one of the cops that came in a few weeks ago and murdered some of the bandidos’ friends. Even though the bandidos should know by now that James is a volunteer, his strikingly similar appearance pisses them off.
The battle on the streets of Rio over territory and the drug business is ongoing. Shootouts and operations by killing squads are real here and not just scenes from a movie. Permanent and visiting residents in these communities are often silent observers to these battles, feeling they will lose no matter who is in power.
By 10 a.m. the morning’s gunshots have died down, but I can still hear the helicopter circling overhead.