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.
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.
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.
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.
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.