Archive for November, 2011

Sunday Morning Invasion

Posted: November 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

Policia Militar where the traficantes used to guard

Last Wednesday, the police set up check points all around Vidigal and Rocinha. After the leadership of the gangs were arrested or escaped, I realized that the only traffickers left were small time managers and street soldiers. The following days were the most tense part of the whole week because I knew that these young men had only three options on Sunday: hide, go to prison, or die. One trafficker came inside the hostel and asked if he could have a shovel so that he could presumably bury something. Helicopters were in the air all night on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The sound of a helicopter is a terrifying thing, all the more so if you are the target. People in these situations act unpredictably.

On Wednesday night, the armed traffickers who are normally outside our door stayed up most of the night drinking and joking loudly. The next day they were gone. After that I never saw another armed trafficker, although I did see a few who were unarmed. Saturday was the most tense of all days because I knew that the traffickers would be getting more and more hopeless and I did not know how they would react to a foreigner staying in their midst. We also heard that traffickers were trying to flee from Rocinha to Vidigal along a trail that leads through the jungle connecting the two favelas. All the traffickers in Vidigal knew exactly where we were. I was worried that they might try and hide in the hostel. Luckily, nothing like this happened.

Oil leftover as a final "screw you" to the police

The hostel sits on one of the highest points in all of Vidigal. From there we were able to see everything that happened on Saturday night. At around 2:30 am, the traffickers started putting up road blocks in the middle of the road. The road blocks mostly consisted of flimsy materials, but were set up in somewhat strategic points. There was one road block that consisted of a line of trash about one meter high. Another one that consisted of old mattresses and motorcycles. The traffickers also put an old white volkswagon van at a very strategic point located just beyond where the street lamp light was able to penetrate. This street lamp located at the main Boca De Fumo about half way up the favela. While watching the traffickers drive up and down the favela placing objects on the road, it seemed extremely likely that the traffickers would put up some sort of fight. They also spilled oil on two difficult turns on the main road, one at the bottom and one at the top. At one point the tanks were not able to go any farther and they had to turn back.

At around 3:50 AM, we received a text from a contact in Leblon that said the police were on the way with tanks. At 4:00 AM, the tanks showed up and started driving up the main road in the favela. From out location we could see one tank driving up and two Armored Personell Carriers, surrounded on all sides by Polica Militar. We were able to hear the loud grinding of the tanks, as they crushed the flimsy road blocks. Upon reaching the Volkswagon, I was convinced that the traffickers would start some sort of fight. Luckily, the tank rolled over the volkswagon without encountering resistance. As the sun slowly peaked its head over distant Niteroi, the Policia Militar established complete military control over the entire favela.

Volkswagon crushed by tank

Probably around 5:30-6:00 AM, two helicopters arrived in Vidigal. We could see several groups of soldiers interviewing residents of the favela and slowly making there way up the favela. The helicopters started making fly overs directly above the hostel. We were on the balcony taking pictures of all that was happening and the helicopters noticed us. They started to do fly overs within 10 meters of the hostel and we stayed put. At one point they made a flyover and we could see their guns pointed directly at us. I had not been afraid at any point during the night, except for at this point. The sound and presence of a helicopter can be terrifying. We found out later that the Policia Militar had no idea that there was a hostel at the top of Vidigal. Due to its incredible view point, they thought it was possibly a drug distribution point. It seems that the police did a poor job of reconnaissance. The hostel has been well documented in Brazilian press and has links all over the internet. Everyone in the favela knows that there is a hostel there.

Helicopter aiming guns at us

Seeing the police ascend the unplanned community, I knew that we were going to be interviewed shortly by large and intimidating men with guns. I decided that I would take a small nap until this happened and told someone to wake me up if the police knocked on the door. I fell quickly asleep and was awakened, not by my colleagues, but by a large Policia Militar soldier with a gun who entered into my room. Startled, I gave him a customary Brazilian thumbs up and asked “Tudo bom?”. He did not reply, but answered with a thumbs up and then left. I got up and followed him down to the main part of the hostel. There were about 5 other soldiers inside, searching the hostel. Soon about two more came in with drug dogs and searched the rest of the hostel. The behavior of the police was friendly and cordial. I never felt under threat at this point.

After the police left, we decided to walk down the main road of the favela to see the remnants of what we had seen throughout the night. As we descended we saw residents of the favela outside staring curiously at the police, as well as ourselves. We saw police with dogs searching everything for hidden drugs or money. Brazilian reporters, who had stayed at the bottom of the favela were walking up and gave us a short interview. My friend, Michael Wolfe, had been in touch with the reporters the previous night and they were fascinated that foreigners decided to stay at the top of the favela.

Dogs trying to find drugs and cash

On our way down, helicopters continued to fly above, reminding me of the fearful interactions just hours before. A tank had rolled over a resident’s car and mother of the resident approached us, thinking we were press, and demanded that the state do something about the destroyed private property. We directed her to a camera crew who were now just walking up from the bottom, where they had been the previous night. The mother tried to get her son to talk to them, but he refused and quickly rushed away. This is a telling story because it shows the hesitance that the residents have with sharing anything with the press or police. He was probably afraid of what might happen after the government gives up and the drug dealers return. The mood in the favela was of tense acceptance of the new order of things. Moto taxis were still not running and most of the businesses were closed. We headed off to Rocinha to check on how the situation was going on there and it was a similar feeling.

Fake traficante gun


Here is an article in Portuguese written about my time in Vidigal. Follow me on twitter @offthetrackrio and facebook at for more updates as well.
Americano relata momento da ocupação de favela

por LusaHoje

A operação policial na favela do Vidigal meteu artilharia pesada
A operação policial na favela do Vidigal meteu artilharia pesada / Fotografia © REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

O estudante norte-americano Stewart Alsop, a estudar no Brasil, relatou hoje os momentos de apreensão vividos durante a ocupação da favela do Vidigal, onde escolheu viver por opção própria.

“Os polícias desconfiaram do local onde estou, pensaram que era uma boca de fumo. Vieram aqui durante a operação com armas e com os cachorros [treinados para encontrar drogas] e revistaram tudo”, contou o estudante à Lusa.

“Não ter dormido nas últimas 48 horas faz com que os últimos eventos se misturem. Parecem lembranças distantes de eventos vividos por outra pessoa”, relata o estudante norte-americano no blog criado para transmitir ao mundo, em inglês, os passos da operação policial que ocupou hoje de manhã a maior favela do Rio de Janeiro.

Em entrevista à Lusa, o estudante contou que helicópteros da polícia sobrevoaram bem de perto o albergue onde ele e outros estrangeiros estão hospedados, o que aumentou a situação de incerteza durante a operação, que terminou sem que qualquer disparo.

“Esse foi o momento mais emocionante para mim. Pensar que esta situação [a presença de polícias fortemente armados e de ter a casa revistada], para os moradores daqui, era uma situação com a qual estavam acostumados”, declarou.

Apesar da operação ter decorrido sem violência, Stewart Alsop relembra que até ao final não se podia ter certeza de que seria assim, o que gerou forte apreensão entre todos.



Life Goes On

Posted: November 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

Not having slept since the night before, the last 48 hours blend seamlessly together. All the events which have transpired, seem like distant memories lived by someone else. The long eery calm before the storm. The terrifying chopping sound that accompanies a helicopters charge coinciding with the forward move of tanks below, all visible from our perch way above the favela. The far away clanck of traficantes placing metal objects on the road as a last ditch effort to peeve the tanks. The horrible spectre that for some stupid reason the traficantes might fight. The comforting realization that the traficantes would give up and not fire a shot. The adrenaline packed moment when a helicopter does a fly by our location scoping there gun sights on us because they believe our hostel is a Boca de Fumo (Drug dispension point). The heavy silence of Military Police entering the hostel with drug dogs and scouring the entire premises. The most affecting of all of these memories, the quick realization that life will, out of necessity, go on as close to normal as possible for the majority of the residents here.

Walking down the main road of the favela that I have been living in and seeing the familiar street that is now littered with debris from the night before. Instead of traficantes everywhere with guns, there are black clad military police patrolling the areas with large motorbikes and trucks. Yet despite this massive change in the chain of power, the residents pour into the streets. They talk with their neighbors in a subdued manner, which irrepressibly bubbles into good natured joking and laughing. We are greeted everywhere as normally as any other day, with the now familiar “Bom Dia” and a charismatic smile, interlaced with the occasional drunken lecture on how we come from Germany (everyone thinks that blond people come from Germany).

The police, both for symbolic and strategic value, have placed their forces in exactly the same positions as those that the traficantes guarded. The people, out of necessity, quickly seem to accept this new order, but with a begrudging air. Except for the abandoned cars placed in the road, now crushed by the tracks of tanks, it would be hard to tell this Sunday morning apart from any other Sunday morning. It seems difficult to fathom, but it seems that for many of the residents here this new arrangement will be little more than a mild inconvenience for them, as they return to the jobs they have and the lives they lead. What I hope to observe and relate over the next couple of weeks, as the actual process of establishing the Brazilian state plays out,  is whether this is in fact the truth.

Despite the convincing “peace” that has been imposed upon the community, one experience in particular hints that the truth of things is once again more complicated than what meets the eyes. Walking down the road, my friend Miguel and I see a car that has been rolled over by a tank the previous night, leaving it utterly destroyed. An older woman, thinking we are the press, comes to us and explains that it is her sons and that the state will need to repay him for it. As we point her in the way of the real press, she tries to convince her son to start speaking to the film crew about what happened. The son backs away quickly from the entire situation. He refuses to talk to the press.

From what I can tell, this reaction is a common one between outsiders (the press and the police) and the residents of the community. The press, who have painted such a bleak and violent picture of their community over the years, seem to the residents as voices for society they do not belong to. The police are seen as corrupt and violent. The residents, who have so long lived in a type of political system more similar to a 19th century Chinese warlord than a 21st century democracy, expect that the government that has ignored them for so long will quickly lose patience and forget them again. After this they expect the drug traffickers to return and punish anyone who might have collaborated with the press and police. Our conversations with the residents confirm these sentiments. It will take a long and persistent campaign on the side of the government to convince these people that they are a positive force and intend on staying.

My internet is still to slow to post pictures or video, but they will be on the way soon. If you would like to see more photos please check out my friend, Michael’s, blog:

To Pacify?

Posted: November 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

To Pacify:

1. To allay the anger or agitation of

2. To restore to a tranquil state

3. To reduce to a submissive state


Why did the government of Rio de Janeiro use this word? They were trying to allay the doubts and fears of the Brazilian upper and middle classes, which was their target audience. This word was specifically chosen by the same genre of spin geniuses who came up with such gems as “climate change” and “the death tax”. All of these phrases share the same purpose: to conjure an idea in the mind of the listener that is more positive or negative, depending on the objectives of the word doctors, than the original phrase.

I would argue that the idea that was initially inside the minds of those planning the first pacification in the community of Dona Marta, in 2008, was more closely aligned with the image that is associated with the word “occupy”. I am not talking about this word in the sense that is used by the “occupy wall street” movement or when it is used to talk about the “illegal occupation” of Iraq, both of which are used to also conjure up emotional responses on the part of the listener. I am talking about a military occupation that is intended to replace a pre-existing form of government with a new one that represents the government.

Why is the government of Rio de Janeiro trying to allay the fears of the Brazilian middle and upper classes? Ever since the drug gangs took political control over the informal communities known as Favelas, the middle and upper classes of Rio have been deathly afraid of what goes on here. Due to the fact that their have been areas of the city that have been literally under a different political structure, petty criminals have had a place to stay completely untouched by the law. They live in the stateless favelas and go out into richer parts of the city to steal. I want to reiterate that these people represent an extremely small minority of the population residing in the favela.

The fact that there are havens for petty criminals to rob the richer populations of the city has caused incredible tension between the middle/upper classes and the lower income residents of the favela. The richer areas of Rio are full of apartment complexes and houses, the vast majority of which have guards (who ironically live in the favelas) and large gates. Banks are full of large and intimidating guards who carry shotguns. Understandably, with Rio’s high petty crime rates, the middle/upper classes feel besieged in their own homes. They have countless stories about how their aunt’s friend or uncle’s coworker was robbed in the most dreadful way possible. They eat up movies, such as Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), which depicts an honest and hardworking elite BOPE officer who leads his squad into the favelas to eliminate the murderous traffickers, who are depicted as vermin deserving a violent death.

It is this target audience that the word pacify is marketed towards. The word pacify conjures up images of the peace after a turbulent storm. You do not imagine people cowering in fear of a pacifying force. It does not have the same negative connotations of occupy, invade, or conquer, which brings to mind images of death, destruction, and struggle. The word pacify gives the middle/upper classes of Rio a clean conscience when analyzing what is going on inside there own city. To pacify is to do something positive, to return to the ideal state of peace. For favelas such as Complexo Alemao and its 400,000 residents who are under a military “occupation”, the situation is definitely not one of peace and won’t be until the drug trade magically stops or Brazilian government gets real about its drug policy.

To hear more voices in English coming from Vidigal check out @invasaovidigal and another blog


The Real Danger

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

Sitting here with my roommate, I have been trying to analyse the real risk of staying here. Is BOPE dangerous? Will the traffickers try to rob us before fleeing?

The real danger currently is the fact that the UPP and BOPE are blocking off every exit from both Rocinha and Vidigal and the leadership of the drug gangs have all either fled or been captured. The low level managers and street soldiers are the only traffickers left and they know it. They also know that the enemy that they are fighting is far superior in numbers and skill. They are like rats caught in a trap, waiting for that final judgement. Only three options remain: die, hide, or go to prison. The helicopters and police at each exit are ensuring that the fourth option, flee, is not an option. I imagine most of them will hide, until of course the BOPE finds them during the 45 days that they are supposed to remain after the initial pacification. Some of them will choose death.

The problem with this turn of events, both for us and the other residents of Vidigal, is that up until Sunday there will be armed men who know that their lives as they know them are at an end. I do not mean to scare all of you, but only intend to describe where the real instability with the current situation lies. When BOPE invades on Sunday, it will be quick and relatively clean (assuming minimal resistance on the side of the traffickers). At our current position at the top of Vidigal, we will probably greeted in the wee hours of the morning by intimidating BOPE soldiers in their black uniforms and berets, descending from helicopters. I still have yet to come up with an excuse as to what the hell I am doing at the top of an unpacified favela. I will probably rely on the tactic I have used in other parts of Latin America when dealing with police: pretend that I don’t speak Portuguese and act like a dumb gringo.

Truth is always complicated

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

For the past four months I have been living in an unpacified favela, known as Vidigal, located on a hill overlooking the richer parts of Rio de Janeiro. On Sunday, the government will invade this favela, as well as a neighboring one and attempt to establish control over the estimated 450,000 people living in these two areas. Around 2000 troops, with the support of armored vehicles and helicopters, will descend upon Vidigal on Sunday and I will be here.

For those of you that aren’t aware, favelas are informal lower-income neighborhoods that were set up by poor migrants looking for opportunities in the larger cities of Brazil. An unpacified favela is a community that is under direct political control by drug traffickers, not the central government. Almost everyday that I have lived here I see armed men without uniforms. Since Brazil received the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the government has slowly and surely established its control over these areas in order to convince the world that it is ready to host these events.

Due to the fact that drug gangs control the favelas, the perceptions of people outside the favela are incredibly skewed. Most upper and middle class Brazilians, and many foreigners, associate the favela with danger and violence. While there is some truth in this view, the reality is ever more complex. For the traffickers, the favela is one of the most dangerous places on earth, with casualty rates far exceeding that of many conflicts in other countries. For everyday people unassociated with the traffickers, the favela can be safer than many other places in this crime torn city.

As the cocaine and crack boom in the 1980’s changed the nature of lower income communities in America, the same happened here in Brazil. The difference, however, is that in America the government writ extended to all parts of the city. In Rio, the central government has thoughtlessly ignored the informal communities of the favelas, denying them basic services such as police and sanitation. When it became apparent how much money was to be made in the drug trade here in Brazil, criminals could see no better option for their business than to set up shop in an area that was not under control of any government forces. They invaded these lower income neighborhoods and set up a political system that, to my knowledge, exists nowhere else in the world.

Rio is generally seen as a dangerous city to the outside world, with some justification. My friends living in other parts of the city have been robbed on several occasions and live their lives accordingly; they don’t take out their cell phones in public and never display wealth. My experience in the favela has been completely different. I drive an expensive foreign motorcycle and have no fear of taking out my Iphone or expensive camera. This is because the dono, or leader, of the main drug gangs, enforces his law rigidly, with the help of his managers and street level enforcers. The punishments for theft or rape are harsh and swiftly administered. Unlike the police, who live on $500 a month in the 12th most expensive city in the world, these enforcers and managers are not corrupt. They too know the punishment for inappropriate behavior.

Obviously, living under the whim of a dictatorial warlord, supplied by money from the drug trade, is not ideal. There is no right to property or a fair trial and the Brazilian constitution does not apply. That being said, the alternatives for those living in the favelas are no more ideal. Police in Rio de Janeiro are corrupt. They are viewed by much of the population as criminals themselves; running illegal gambling operations, demanding bribes, and often supporting the drug traffickers in exchange for money. The people living here have few good options.

In writing this, I am trying to witness and describe the disappearance of a unique community that is full of contradictions. I have been lucky enough to experience this unique place and want to share what I know before it disappears forever. I am not trying to excuse the drug dealers or portray them in a positive light. They have chosen the life they lead. I only want to bring attention to the majority of the community who are in no way tied to the drug trade. I have lived, travelled and studied in over 45 countries and nowhere else have I encountered such a warm and charismatic people as the ones I have met here in Vidigal.

The Situation

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

I would like to thank all of you for your kind and encouraging words. It gives me more motivation to write knowing that people are actually reading it.

The leadership of ADA (Amigos Das Amigos) have all either fled shamelessly (with the assistance of corrupt police) or been captured. The number one guy, Nem, was caught trying to flee late last night. The only traffickers left in Vidigal and Rocinha are low level dealers and managers. The Policia Militar and the UPP (Pacification Police) have blocked every exit from Rocinha and Vidigal. All last night there was a helicopter flying at a low level. The government has been making a show of force and it has worked.

These small guys have no formal training and little strategic sense. They are scared shitless and have no escape. When BOPE, an elite military unit, invades on Sunday there will be no major confrontation. Possibly there will be small scale clashes in Rocinha when the macho ones try to resist arrest.

Although each of these traficantes chose the life that they lead, there is more to it than just this. The people who grow up in the favela have few opportunities. What opportunities that do exist are in menial jobs, sweeping streets and collecting garbage. Of course not all residents in the favela are poor, but most are. Most of these guys are just young underemployed men who find themselves in a difficult situation. What complicates the situation even more is that most of the gang members come from the community and have friends and family among the community.

The traficante who I see most often has a post near to the area I have been living in. The first time I met him was watching the sunrise over RIo after a party I had gone to in Vidigal. As the sun slowly rised over the neighboring city of Niteroi, I asked him why he chose the life he did, my tongue lubricated by the previous night of moderate drinking. The gun in his hand did not deter me. I will never forget his response. Several years ago, he needed an operation to fix something in his stomach (my Portuguese wasn’t good enough to find out exactly what it was). He did not have the right documentation or resources to receive the operation. The only people he could turn to for help were the traffickers. They gave him what he needed and in return he started working for them. Although anecdotes are an inadequate form of formulating truth, my intuition tells me that this type of tale is not uncommon.

I am not excusing the traffickers choices. There are always other options and the other residents of the favela who did not pick up guns are a testament to that. I just want to remind everyone that when Sunday comes around and the police come in here and put the traffickers in a cell or in a casket, these small guys are not faceless drug dealers, but real people with hard lives and difficult decisions. They should not escape punishment, but the punishment should reflect the reality of the lot they have been given.