In Rio’s slums, gangs, drugs, murders carry the day

In Rio’s slums, gangs, drugs, murders carry the day

Not far from Rio's posh Ipanema and Copacabana districts, narrow pathways lead to grim slums where poverty, drug gangs and young men with assault rifles dominate life for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Bullet-riddled bodies lie in pools of blood, and gun-toting teens in flip-flops navigate the maze of alleys working as guards, lookouts and distributors for drug lords operating just a few miles (kilometers) from where hundreds of thousands and tourists and athletes will be for the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games. 

"In these communities you can see what real life is like. This is our reality," said a drug trafficker who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that his identity and location not be revealed.


Photos by Felipe Dana | Video footage by Yesica Fisch


Not far from Rio's posh Ipanema and Copacabana districts, narrow pathways lead to grim slums where poverty, drug gangs and young men with assault rifles dominate life for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Bullet-riddled bodies lie in pools of blood, and gun-toting teens in flip-flops navigate the maze of alleys working as guards, lookouts and distributors for drug lords operating just a few miles (kilometers) from where hundreds of thousands and tourists and athletes will be for the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games. 

"In these communities you can see what real life is like. This is our reality," said a drug trafficker who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that his identity and location not be revealed.

Holding an AK-47, the masked drug boss said dealers win the hearts and minds of locals by paying for food and medicine, providing a lifeline for many living in crushing poverty.

Gruesome scenes of death and impunity play out daily in Rio's hundreds of shantytowns, known as favelas.

On the roof of a cable car station, a half dozen police officers with assault weapons hunkered down behind low concrete walls to shoot it out with suspected drug traffickers in broad daylight in a sprawling cluster of slums known as Complexo do Alemao. When the gunfire stopped, schoolchildren casually walked by as officers frisked drivers.


In this July 11, 2016 photo, young drug traffickers pose for photos holding their guns at a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Teenage boys openly tote guns as they run in flip-flops through a maze of alleys. When Associated Press journalists visit areas with authorization from the gangs, the ones who agree to be photographed cover their faces so they can't be identified. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 7, 2016 photo, police exchange gunfire with drug traffickers at the "pacified" Alemao slum complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Half a dozen officers had entrenched themselves behind a cable car station while they shot it out with suspected drug traffickers in the sprawling cluster of slums in north Rio. Shootouts erupt daily, even in slums where community policing programs had successfully rewritten the narrative in recent years. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


Elsewhere, a man was dragged from his house and shot dead, his bloody body left at the front door. A teenage boy was executed with his hands bound on a street that divides the territories of two rival gangs. A woman who was a candidate for a local council seat was shot to death at a bar near her house.

Some residents do what they can to show a different way. Pastor Nilton, a preacher who was once a former drug trafficker, holds prayer services in gang-ruled slums.

Nilton tries to persuade teenage boys to give up the gang life. Youths sometimes put their weapons down — but usually it's only long enough to receive his blessing. 


 Felipe Dana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Renata Brito)

Felipe Dana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Renata Brito)

 

AP photographer and Rio native, Felipe Dana, sheds light on the realities of life in the Olympic host city.


I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, so I’ve been exposed to this city’s endemic violence since I was a kid.

But it wasn’t until I became a journalist and started spending lots of time in the slums that most Rio residents from outside those areas never see that I was exposed to the real scope of the violence here and started to understand the toll it takes on people’s lives.

The so-called “police pacification” program, which was meant to solve Rio’s violence problem by bringing police to slums that had been dominated for decades by heavily armed drug gangs, started around when I joined The Associated Press, in 2009.


In this June 29, 2016 photo, a police officer takes position during an operation against drug traffickers at the "pacified" Jacarezinho slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The number of people killed by police has spiked in the past two years after dropping significantly the previous six. Overall murders are also on the rise in the first half of 2016, just as officials wanted to use the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games to showcase the city as a tourist destination. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


At first, I was really hopeful about the program. And at first, it really seemed to be working. I was able to go into slums that I wouldn’t have been able to enter without the permission of the gangs that control the area.

But that’s not the case anymore. The improvement was fleeting. The program expanded quickly and the police weren’t able to maintain enough officers in the pacified slums to keep control of the area. Also, the promise that other government services like sewage, garbage collection, schools and health clinics would be follow the police were never kept.

If anything, the situation in many slums is worse than before the pacification, and certainly more confusing. It used to be that you at least knew who was in charge of a certain patch of turf. Now, even in slums where the police are still present, they aren’t really in control. Now the drug dealers are again in plain sight. Teenagers openly toting assault weapons are a common sight. And you don’t know when someone might open fire.


In this July 15, 2016 photo, police officers use a flashlight to inspect the crime scene where the body of an alleged thief was found on a roadside in Nova Iguacu, greater Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Gruesome scenes of death and impunity play out daily in Rio's hundreds of shantytowns, known as favelas. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 15, 2016 photo, residents watch as police work the crime scene where a man was murdered in Mage, greater Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Scenes of impunity and violence play out daily in many of Rio's hundreds of slums, known here as favelas, and other outlying areas. The vast majority of killings are the result of heavily armed gangs who frequently shoot it out in turf wars. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 13, 2016 photo, police investigate the crime scene where Aga Lopes Pinheiro, a pre-candidate for local council, was shot dead in Mage, in greater Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. According to local news reports the 49-year-old was shot by four gunmen while in a bar with a friend and her partner. Lopes is the 11th politician murdered in the greater Rio area since November. Police have not been able to determine the motives for the killings. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


Rio’s slums are now conflict zones. You’ve got gangs fighting brutal turf wars; you’ve got police going after the gangs; you’ve got gangs going after police.

And stuck right in the middle of it, you’ve got the residents of the slums, 99 percent of whom are honest, hardworking people who have nothing to do with the gangs. But they’re caught in the crossfire, victims of what in Portuguese we call “balas perdidas,” which literally translates as “lost bullets.”

In Rio these days, we’re constantly hearing about people being maimed and killed by these so-called lost bullets: housewives, teenage girls, little kids felled as they play in front of their homes.

It’s out of control.


This June 30, 2016 photo shows the body of a teenage boy who was killed while walking outside of his home turf in a gang controlled area of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Later in the day, according to residents, the father went to denounce his son's death to the gang and was shot dead. Overall murders are on the rise in the first half of 2016 say officials, and the victims are overwhelmingly young, black men. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


On one Friday night, I saw the bodies of eight people who had been murdered across the Baixada Fluminense, the poor suburbs north of Rio where many of the gangs that were pushed out of slums in the city’s rich South Zone migrated after the start of the pacification program. That kind of death toll is not unusual in that area. An officer told me that police in the area were recently called to the scene of 19 murders in a single night.

This project to document the reality of Rio’s slums today grew out of the work that I’ve been doing in many slums for the past seven years. I drew on contacts to help me get into places journalists rarely get access to. Often working throughout the night, I spent months visiting more than 10 slums throughout greater Rio.

It’s really unsafe.


In this July 11, 2016 photo, a young drug trafficker poses for a photo holding his weapon at a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Teenagers openly tote guns while they work as guards, lookouts and distributors for drug lords operating just a few miles (kilometers) from where hundreds of thousands and tourists and athletes will be for the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 11, 2016 photo, a young, masked drug trafficker poses for photos holding his guns at a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Teenagers openly tote guns while they work as guards, lookouts and distributors for drug lords operating just a few miles (kilometers) from where hundreds of thousands and tourists and athletes will be for the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 11, 2016 photo, masked teenage boys pose for photos holding their guns at a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The teens are security guards, lookouts and distributors for drug lords operating just a few miles (kilometers) from where hundreds of thousands and tourists and athletes will be for the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


When you’re driving through certain parts of the city at night, the threat of violence is palpable. In the Baixada Fluminese, for example, the streets are empty and there’s barely any police presence.

I had some close calls. Once, in the Alemao slum complex, I was following police officers who came under intense fire. I spent several minutes spread-eagle on the ground before I was able to crawl to cover. Another time, I was finishing up a day of work in the North Zone of when the car in front of me screeched to a halt and armed guys got out and ordered us to hand over the keys to the car. They kept asking if we were police officers, as they kept their weapons trained on us.


In this July 16, 2016 photo, police responding to a call find the body of a young black man in the middle of a residential street in Caxias, greater Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio's ambitious security push to bring crime down and seize control of certain slums ahead of the 2016 Summer Games is crumbling. Overall slayings are on the rise in 2016, the victims overwhelmingly young, black men. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

This July 13, 2016 photo shows the body of a man who was taken from the inside of his home and shot dead at the entrance of his home in Nova Iguacu, greater Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Scenes of impunity and violence play out daily in many of Rio's hundreds of slums, known here as favelas, and other outlying areas. Police believe this homicide was gang-related. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 19, 2016 photo, cable cars transport commuters over the Complexo do Alemao, a sprawling cluster of slums in north Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Just a short drive from upscale Rio districts like Ipanema and Copacabana, steep and narrow entryways lead to slums where poverty and gun violence dominate daily life for hundreds of thousands of residents.(AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 16, 2016 photo, Pastor Nilton, back right in blue, rejoices with members of his church after learning that residents will allow him to hold a prayer service in their courtyard, in a gang-ruled slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pastor Nilton, a former drug trafficker, spends his energy looking to convert the teenage boys who serve as security guards, lookouts and distributors for the drug lords operating in the slums. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this June 29, 2016 photo, a police officer patrols among residents during an operation against drug traffickers at the "pacified" Jacarezinho slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Pacification Police Units, known by the Portuguese acronym UPP, were created in 2008, setting up community stations in at-risk areas, mostly near sports venues, posh tourist districts and downtown. A drug gang leader called the program a "facade." He said that drug dealers were initially worried and kept a low profile, but soon it was back to business as usual. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

 

In this July 16, 2016 photo, pastor Nilton blesses two young drug traffickers at a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Many of the young drug traffickers have an immense respect for the pastor, a former drug trafficker. It's not uncommon to see young men set their weapons down, but only long enough to receive his blessing. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


But the reality is that during the Olympics, Rio will probably be very safe _ at least for the foreign visitors. There will be soldiers and lots of elite forces everywhere. Plus many of the traffickers told me they won’t be looking for conflict. They said they would lay low unless police invade their areas. It’s a bad time to pick a fight, and they are aware of that. So unless something extraordinary happens, violence shouldn’t be a big problem during the games.

But the real problem for all Rio residents, and especially all the people who live in slums, will come after Olympics. The troops will go home and innocent people will again find themselves caught in the crossfire.

That’s the real tragedy.


Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: In Rio's slums, gangs, drugs, murders carry the day, by Felipe Dana.

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