Adventures in the Favela – Part 01 – The Body
From far away it looked like a drunkard who had stumbled and fallen asleep on the dried up football field but as we got closer, it became obvious that this was not the case. The body was still fresh and dressed in shorts and Havaianas, and was lifeless in a fetal position, abandoned in the open for everyone to see. He was around 25, a northeastern mulato. The shot had been through his anus and although the blood had already coagulated, it was clearly visible.
As we approached in silence, the sun falling behind the hills was making the sky look orange. This, and the emptiness of that open space gave a tragic film-like feel to that solemn moment; the cars in the distance and the noise of the children playing far away were the sound track. There was some kind of celestial peace in the air; we felt the serenity of the breeze that seemed to comfort the corpse and take him to a more serene world. However, there was no way ignore that anonymous man’s silent cry of anguish and pain. Our day had been fine until then: Rosa and Marquinhos, her 9-year-old son, and I were in our beachware coming back from an entire day in Ipanema, under the sun and in the sea. Although we were in shock, we tried to hide it from Marquinhos who began to laugh thinking that this was a drunkard who had let his bowels loose before fainting. We changed the subject and walked away wondering how safe our new address was.
We were living next to the northern exit of the Reboucas Tunnel; the lush forest at the end of our street had made it a respectable spot in the past, but now a favela had crept in and reduced the old mansions into empty ruins. Only one of the original luxurious constructions had retained its opulence as the owners had been smart enough to transform it into a popular venue for wedding parties and other expensive occasions, the Le Buffet. The football field where we were was in front of it, on a valley that separated the expensive cars in its garage from where we lived. That open terrain ended at a river, the Rio Comprido, which gave the name to the neighborhood down below.
Our three-storey building was the only middle class enclave around although two hundred meters uphill on the stood was the Scuderie Le Cocq, better know as the Esquadrao da Morte, or Death Squadron. This paramilitary brotherhood was famous for making political dissidents vanish during the military dictatorshiop. Now, in the eighties, it had turned into a gun-for-hire organization focused on eliminating criminals. Above its gate under lush trees was its infamous insignia with to guns crossed behind a skull. Beyond that sinister house there were favela’s huts, alleys, a small commerce and the poor people who lived there.
Who found me the flat was the university clerk who used to sell me dope, which made us marginally part of the “context”. Because of this introduction, we were able to circulate untouched and even feel safe in an area where Rio’s middle class would not dare to set foot. I occasionally used the phone booth in the Favela, bought beer and other small things in the grocery and was wise enough to said hi to the guys of the “movement”, which was good politics. What also helped was that we were friends with Josimar, a gigantic and cool black guy who lived in the street and who was friends with Barreto, the guy who had told me about the flat. Josimar was a navy deserter and had a girlfriend from Ipanema, he had grown up in that street and was a childhood friend of our next door neighbor. Soon after we arrived, he told me that the best politics was to keep it friendly with the armed guys, and not let them know that I was a potential customer. By no means should I get too close.
Soon after the body incident, he told me the story of how the body had appeared on the football field. As I had imagined, it had been the gang who I said hi to every day who had knocked him out and had left the body exposed there as an example and a warning. The dead guy had wronged the owner of the boca – or drug den –he had ran away without paying a debt but had decided come back to put things straight. The reason he had re-appeared to talk to the traficantes, was that he had managed to get some money was back to pay his debt and ask for forgiveness. However there had been no mercy and they executed him on the spot. The gang did not fool around: one Sunday at lunchtime, when we about to leave for the beach, we saw a policeman crouched inside our entrance hall aiming a machine gun and making a sign for us to get back into the flat. After that, his team moved on and soon we counted eighteen police cars storming up the hill while two helicopters covered them from above. That same night Josimar, told us that the operation had happened because a police commander had discovered that his daughter was living with the “boss”. On other nights we saw the police exchanging shots with dealers on the other side of the river. Marquinhos would say that we didn’t need to watch TV because the action happened outside our window. Still, in some bizarre way, that place felt more connected to reality, friendlier and safer than the South Zone where we had come from.