Party Down, Favela Style
RIO DE JANEIRO — A Colt AR-15 rifle was aimed at my gut, an FMK-3 sub-machine gun a little lower. The men holding the weapons were barely that, and they shared a bottle of cheirinho da loló, passing the cheap chloroform-ether mix back and forth, sniffing it for a glossy high. This was a baile funk, Rio de Janeiro’s illegal block party of music, guns and narcotics — one of those all-night festas that exist in myth for those who cannot gain access to them or are too fearful to attend.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves: Rio will never be safe. The violence can only be contained, and only through random good fortune. I’ve seen it from both sides: with the cops in body armor and with the drug traffickers who control the favelas, blowing the life expectancy graph if they pass 20.
It’s not that the government hasn’t tried to address the problem, especially with the World Cup coming to town in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. For years, the state ordered daily police operations, attacking the favelas with troops in helicopters and armored vehicles. It was a bloody policy that brought no change and only made good TV.
Then the authorities changed tactics and began occupying select favelas with rookie cops, expelling the gangs and trying to pacify these neighborhoods for the people there raising families and running shops — and ducking bullets that pierce the walls of their homes.
“It’s a success in the places where it’s going on,” said George Howell, director of the Rio office of the International Council on Security and Development. “But this policy is a troop surge. From an administrative standpoint, it’s not sustainable.” The pacification forces control just 26 of Rio’s roughly 1,000 favelas.
Today, about the only thing that’s sustainable is the baile funk, the traffickers’ attempt at pacifying the people caught in their cynical grasp by throwing them free block parties. An open bar makes everybody forget their troubles for a night.
In June, I attended the baile funk in Duque de Caxias, one of Rio’s most violent favelas, notorious for its murder rate, for the local cops’ ties to the narcotics trade and for the Monstro de Caxias, a devil worshiper who attacked a former girlfriend with a sword.
A young guy nicknamed Farinha took me there. He ran a community outreach program called Soldiers No More, which directed kids away from crime and into sports. That night, he wore a Lakers jersey. In greeting, he hugged members of Comando Vermelho, the gang in control here, their guns flashing in the light of the alleys.
We passed a speaker system 15 feet high and 100 feet long that ringed a small square. The music gives the party its name: baile funk is a rough, mean genre born in the favelas, with lyrics about money, crime and the joy that the strong experience taking advantage of the weak.
We found a table at the intersection of four dirt paths that sluiced between crudely formed cinder-block buildings. Several transvestites traipsed by in halter-tops and lip-gloss. Children danced for centavos, which people tossed into the dust at their feet. The lyrics: “Here we make a million a week. And I carry 20,000 in my pocket.”
Farinha gestured toward a table behind me. “The addiction zone,” he said. This area was called the boca de fumo, and it was there that the so-called vapors, mid-ranking operators in the Comando Vermelho hierarchy, sold crack, cocaine and methamphetamine out of trash bags. The vapors smoked yellowed rocks from metal pipes, their eyes losing focus, Uzi submachine guns dangling from shoulder straps, pistol-grip shotguns resting against their legs.
The dono da boca, the sales point boss, looked on, as streams of people exchanged reals for powder. “Drug dealing won’t end here,” Farinha whispered. “There is too much money. There is no solution.” He said a gang can earn $80,000 during the baile funk.
Men poured out cachaça, a cheap sugar-cane liquor, for children, some of whom were adept at lighting and smoking the pipe. A group of kids surrounded an old man who had the vacant eyes of an addict, punching him in the side, kicking him in the legs and hounding him like a pack of dogs.
Farinha located the head of the favela. The boss was a young man, about 30, with a beer belly and a baseball cap. Several heavily armed men flanked him, their necks and chests festooned with sparkling jewelry. Wanting to speak with the boss, I stepped forward. The rifles lifted, pointing at me, inducing a quick change of heart.
A few years ago, in the Alemão favela, gang members spotted Tim Lopes, a reporter for Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network, with a camera hidden in his bag. According to the local media, he was tortured and then killed.
I slipped out of Duque de Caxias, saying no goodbyes, and on the boundary of the favela found a bus heading toward Ipanema. The bus nudged into the other Rio, where the police guard tourists. Through the window, the sun laying light on the land, I saw two cops having a laugh beside their blue-and-white military police vehicle. A slogan affixed to the car’s rear windshield read: “With you all the time!”