Monday, 6 August 2018

Rio de Janeiro

Being witness to a woman on a motorbike shot to death is not something that happens every day. It happened on day four of my stay in Rio de Janeiro. Was the city’s reputation for violence true? Rio is certainly a city with a reputation that precedes it – one that prompts questions from people such as, “did you pack your bullet proof vest?” and “are you hiring an armoured car?”

My bullet proof vest was at the dry cleaner, and for budgetary reasons I opted for a scooter rather than an armoured car. Who knows? Maybe this is the reason I got out of Rio alive: “maybe people thought you were coming to mug them..?” Is it possible? The dude in the Batman t-shirt on the Bee Monaco (a Brazilian copy of a Vespa)?

The woman on the ground, eyes wide open and face and arms all cut to pieces from her lifeless body hitting the road at speed, was 31 years old and was called Amanda Ferreira Pereira. That’s all I know about her, from a news article published the next day with a photo of her corpse under a mylar blanket. Apparently that’s all the news that was fit to print about her death in a city where murder is a fairly frequent event. It didn’t even give a probable motive, though people said perhaps jealous ex-lover: a common motive for murders in Brazil.

Let’s be realistic for a moment. Despite a few outlying instances of bystanders getting caught in crossfire, Rio’s violence tends to be quite targeted: if you are a police officer or a drug dealer, you are a target. Hundreds of police officers are killed each year, and probably a far greater number of people in the drug trade. Gun battles between dealers and cops or between rival groups of dealers are commonplace occurrences in the city, with most of the action centred on the favelas.

During the run up to the Olympics (2016) and the World Cup (2014) there had been a large scale crackdown on gang related violence in the favelas. Controversial tactics under a “Pacification Programme” umbrella were credited with reducing crime levels and improving living conditions for the law abiding majority. However, the cost of hosting both international events coupled with changing fortunes in the Brazilian oil markets meant that Rio’s coffers became empty. Literally: the city is currently on the brink of bankruptcy, a fact not helped by endemic political corruption, with one governor after another skimming off as much as they can before indictment. Police are not being paid. Or at least not by the state, but as police officers and their families cannot live on goodwill and fresh air alone, one may suspect that many might be getting paid from other sources. Such as, possibly, indeed, taking over the rackets in the favelas themselves. Gamekeepers turned poachers?

Life in Rio is undoubtedly rather tough for most, with an extremely evident wealth divide. Salaries are generally low and living costs are high, even by European standards. Even living in the favelas has apparently become more and more expensive (residents are taxed and pay for their utilities, contrary to popular myth – however, they don’t get easy access to simple things such as a postal service or internet). Those living in fear of the favelas can go and live in wonderful places such as “Dream Village”, one of many walled compounds complete with razor wire and guarded gates (and in Dream Village’s case, a plastic Secret Service agent standing 24/7 guard). Here, people can breathe easy knowing the violence is kept from their doorstep – just, heaven forbid, don’t go into the city centre (or any slightly sketchy neighbourhood) after dark, because you will be robbed, raped and murdered after 14.6 steps (on average).

I explored favelas by day and night. I saw dealers. They saw me. They ignored me. They aren’t stupid. They know a threat when they see one. They didn’t care about me. I also saw lots of entirely normal people. I saw couples sitting in doorways eating takeaways and laughing, and children going to and from school with colourful backpacks on. Sadly though it’s debatable that their education will do them much good: discrimination against people from the favelas is part of Rio’s society, and your address (or lack thereof) will guide your life prospects better than any test scores.

At night I saw samba dancing classes for children next to a stinking open sewer (generously called a “canal”), with crocodiles silently swimming through the filthy dark water. People say that the favelas are about community, and that’s what I saw, even if there is a slightly hidden overarching structure of power wielded by dealers and/or corrupt police.

All I saw from normal Carioca (people from Rio) was goodwill and friendliness. For instance, though the scooters and motorbikes might ride through rush hour traffic like lunatics (even by my standards), when I stopped my scooter by the side of a freeway to take a photo of isolated coastline, it only took a minute for a motorbike to pull up behind me and check that I was ok and hadn’t broken down.

Similarly the group of MMA fighters-in-training who I met on a rock one evening, swimming and enjoying the sunset. They enthusiastically practiced their English with me, telling me about the disciplines they were studying (Brazilian Jujitsu and Capoeria among them).

In fact, in all the many parts of Rio I visited on my Bee Monaco, I would say that I felt less attitude and hostility than in Darlington on a Friday night. Considerably less, in fact...

Obviously though, it’s not all paranoia. As I witnessed firsthand, it is violent, senselessly so. And the day I wanted to go and explore Vidigal and climb Morro Dois Irmaos saw major gun battles erupt between police and dealers, though I suppose if I had any guts as a photographer I’d have gone anyway, but I chose not to (instead I went to the beautiful Barra de Guaratiba, out on the coast to the West – like the Robin Hoods Bay of Rio).

Rio is dangerous. But as a resident or visitor, it seems that the risk should be viewed realistically and not simply through a lens of constant fear and suspicion. So relax on the seafront with a caipirinha and know that that group of young men swaggering towards you who look a bit gangster-ish really aren’t: they’re just out to kick a football about on the beach and enjoy the evening.

This is a first batch of photos from the trip just to give an idea of the place: a more complete chronological collection in colour will follow, with more context provided.