It was one of the first news I read about Brazil when I was home again in Frankfurt: “Two police commanders injured in shooting.” One of them was Major Pricilla Azevedo, chief of the Pacifying Police Unit in the favela Rocinha. Only a few days before, I had met her . I was accompanying José Martins de Oliveira, who has lived in Rocinha for 47 years and is fighting tirelessly for the rights of all the people there.
I met José Martins close to our hostel in Botafogo, a neighbourhood considered to be one of the “good” ones in Rio. We took a bus crowded with workers and employees on their way home. The bus climbed the steep streets of São Conrado, past colossal estates, mansions with swimming pools on the roof, and the American private school. I was astonished when, just a few hundred meters further on, we entered Rocinha.
Rocinha is home to 70,000 people, if you believe the census, to many more if you believe what others say. Many residents belong to the so-called “Class C”, the lower middle class. Their houses are two, three, or even four floors high, though mostly raw and unplastered. There is a bank, a fitness center with a high glass front; there are shops and restaurants with Wi-Fi.
We walked along the narrow main street. Swarms of motorcycles whizzed up and down, honking through the hurry-scurry. Market stalls with mangos and vegetables lined the street. In front of bars, people sat on plastic chairs, drinking beer and playing dominos. You could hear music everywhere. A simmering town in the big city. I felt comfortable.
But there were also mountains of garbage, and stinking sewage trickled down the hill. A steep and dark trail led from the main road into a maze of houses, deeper and deeper, further down the social ladder to a place without electricity and running water.
Overlooking Rocinha, there were eight containers, blue and white, the headquarters of Major Pricilla Azevedo. She was the commander of the “Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora” (UPP), the pacifying police. UPP had driven heavily armed drug traffickers out of Rocinha in 2012. Now they are supposed to ensure that the criminals do not return.
Major Pricilla Azevedo´s predecessor, however, is now himself imprisoned. Together with some 20 subordinates he is accused of having tortured a worker called Amarildo in the UPP-containers to get information about fugitive drug dealers. Amarildo died. His body has not been found yet.
People here have no one to believe in, said José Martins. They are afraid that the brutal drug gangsters might return. And they do not trust the police.
At least once a week, José Martins told me, there are shootings between criminals and the police. They even take place right in the heart of Rocinha, just next to the restaurant where we had had dinner, while outside it was getting dark, the road still full of life.
contaRio – that´s how we called our site: Tell me, Rio! We have found many stories in this fascinating city. Beautiful stories. And sad ones, too.
David Klaubert, 30, editor for www.faz.net, Frankfurt