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When Rio won the 2016 Olympics it was as if the whole city pinched itself. Euphoric crowds sang and danced on the beach while, on the big screen above their heads, President Lula and Sergio Cabral, the state governor, hugged and wept. On buses and in backstreets people went about their business in quiet surprise. Although cariocas are dreamers, years of decline and disappointment have tempered their natural exuberance. But the next day it seemed that everyone was thinking the same thing: maybe, just maybe, life in Rio might improve.
Palpable optimism hung in the air for a few weeks before dissipating in an instant when war broke out in Vila Isabel, a bohemian middle-class neighbourhood. One Friday after midnight, gangs of soldiers from the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) drug faction invaded a favela called Morro dos Macacos, Monkey Hill. The initial invasion was slick and well organised and they drove up the hill in stolen cars and vans where they moved quickly to take over strategic points in the community. Then the plan went awry and the invaders became trapped between the police and their rivals.
Intense gun battles on both sides of the hill went on until Saturday evening. Live TV broadcast images of shoppers taking cover in doorways and behind cars while the police armoured vehicle, thecaveirão (big skull) bore down residential streets. Bullets hit a police helicopter brought down by its pilot only seconds before it went up in flames. There were six police inside: three died. When the invasion began to fail, CV bosses from other areas in the city sent minions out to burn buses, a traditional faction tactic for protesting and distracting attention. A mood of instability took hold and people cancelled shopping trips, nights out and parties. Most cariocas stayed at home to watch constant replays of the helicopter circling and churning thick black smoke before becoming a fireball and crashing into the ground, as any residual high spirits about the Olympic victory dissolved into torn metal, blood and ash.
Evandro João Silva, my colleague and friend, was the charismatic founder of one of the successful AfroReggae cultural centres, and one of few in the city who tried to not let events spoil his weekend. But the city centre by night, far from the war zone in Vila Isabel, carried its own risks. Evandro was shot dead in a street robbery early on Sunday morning, killed walking from one nightspot to another. Security cameras recorded the attack, and over the next days Globo showed the footage on all its news programmes: first the attack on Evandro, who fights two men who jump him from behind and shoot him during the struggle, and later on, a clip that shows a police vehicle drive past him as he lies dying in a shop window. Then even more footage comes to light that shows the same police officers apparently capturing and then releasing the men responsible for the murder. The scandal that surrounded Evandro’s killing temporarily knocked the battle for Monkey Hill off top spot on the news.
The Public Security Secretary later admitted he had prior intelligence about the invasion, but alleged he lacked the necessary manpower to take preventive action. The high death toll included three men shot in a car, whom police initially described as criminals, but whose families proved they were innocent residents caught in the crossfire. This was the first time high profile combat had broken out in the city since the declaration of the successful Olympic bid and images of the helicopter on fire were repeated on newscasts across the world as presenters questioned Rio’s ability to host a peaceful Olympics.
Rio is in the spotlight and, for the first time in many years, a newsroom priority. Lucy Ash is a BBC radio journalist who came in the weeks following the failed invasion and employed me as a fixer. She was hard-nosed, persistent and insisted that we visit Monkey Hill to speak to the mothers of the innocent men who died during the invasion.
No one was able to put us in touch with community leaders, so we made our way to one of the entrances to the favela and asked locals how to find the residents association. Someone made a call and asked us to wait. It was late afternoon and there was typical Rio warmth in the buzz of conversation in bars, the to and fro of shoppers and the shouts of greetings between friends. Vila Isabel is tucked away in the folds of the city between giant rocks and hills and here the rhythm of life is less hectic than in better-known neighbourhoods. We paid for several rounds of beer and then a gari, a community street sweeper, turned up in his bright orange uniform. He got in the car and we drove through a tunnel that took us to the other side of the hill.
Grey clouds clogged the skies as our car climbed the trash strewn cobbled street, and when Edilson, our driver, wound down the window, heavy air closed in. Residents coming home from work mingled with locals drinking at kiosk bars. Our guide was keen to show off his pimped ride andcalled to friends according to their football team “fala Vascaino! e aí Flamengo!”. Fatigue was visible on stretched faces and when we came to a checkpoint, teenagers in baseball caps handling shiny automatic pistols stepped forward to see who was in the car. The street sweeper leant out, gave a thumbs-up, and told them he was taking some journalists to the association. They waved us on.
Further along the road, we stopped to speak to the cagy President of the residents association. He kept talk to a minimum and introduced us to someone who could take us to meet the families. Suited and carrying a briefcase, this man guided us further into the favela, first up and then down a curved road offset by houses, shops and a panorama of the city twinkling in the early evening. As we navigated a U-bend he showed us where the three men were killed. They were driving in the same direction as we were, when someone in the road above them opened fire.
We parked and continued on foot. More boys with guns peered at us from the gloom of an abandoned bullet-pocked house that commanded the top of the hill. We had come full circle around the favela and below us was the point where we had waited for the gari a short time ago. Then we climbed steps and walked single file along an alley that twisted between primordial boulders where brick dwellings were hewn into the side of the rock face. A group of women on a doorstep stopped their conversation when we appeared.
An impossibly steep and narrow set of tiled steps led into a large, clean air-conditioned room. The walls were painted sky blue and the neatly corniced ceiling, white. There were chairs, two sofas, a dining table, family photos, CD shelves and a widescreen plasma TV. The room gave onto a kitchen and there was a second room on the left and a corridor to the right. The house was orderly and snug. A heavy white woman with a crumpled face sat on the largest sofa. We took our shoes off. Maria was the owner of the house and the mother of one of the boys. Other people came in quietly and sat or leant against the walls.
Maria answered Lucy’s question through sobs.
“Yes they’d been to a party, because like all young people they have the right to go out and enjoy themselves, and then they heard the shooting start. So they decided to come home and that’s when…”
She broke off, picked up a framed photo of her son, who worked as an auxiliary at a private hospital, and circled the room, picture in hand. When she sat down again, another woman came and put a hand on her shoulder, while a man appeared from a room in the corner. These were the other boys’ parents. Out of five in the car, two survived. They were close friends and Maria put on a DVD that showed them all at a birthday party on a schooner a few months ago. The room filled with sunny scenes of happy, good-looking young people partying underneath Sugarloaf Mountain.
Maria touched wrinkled fingers to her son’s face, and stayed standing by the television with her hand on the screen, drifting in and out of coherence, now talking about his death and how they will be suing the state, now talking about the personal problems he had shared with her, troubles with his girlfriend.
While the other parents explained they believed the invading traffickers received support from corrupt police, that it might even have been police who killed their children, Maria went into her son’s bedroom, where ironed clothes were stacked and Flamengo team posters decorated the walls. There was a collection of model cars neatly lined on a shelf and a TV showing soccer. She threw herself on his bed.
We offered our last condolences and left. Raindrops spattered as we made our way in silence along the alley. Inside the gloom of the abandoned house the traffickers and their guns made sad silhouettes in the last light.