The charming, if slightly dated, guidebook How To Be a Carioca opens with this joke:
Three men were in an airplane: a New Yorker, a Parisienne, and a Carioca. The American puts his hand out the window of the plane and said, “Ah, we are flying over New York.” The others asked, “How do you know?”“I just touched the Statue of Liberty!”A little while later the Parisienne put his hand out the window and sighed, “Ah, we are flying over Paris.”The others asked, “How do you know?”“I just touched zee Eiffel Tower!””A little while later the Carioca put his hand out the window and said, “Ah, we are flying over Rio.”The others asked, “How do you know?”“Someone just stole my watch!”
The stodgy Fodor’s Brazil opens with this award-worthy statement of the obvious: “It’s best not to protest when being mugged.”
My trip to Rio opened with the sight of an elderly British woman crying. She had been taking pictures of Copacabana Beach when a teenage boy snatched the camera from her hands. It wasn’t the cost of the digital camera that had her in tears, it was the loss of the memory card holding 28 days of pictures from her tour of South America.
But tourists face only the penny-ante stuff: pickpockets, scam artists, the occasional mugger. After all, it’s in no one’s interests to draw blood. You can fleece a sheep many times but kill it only once. The real crime is in the drug trade, and it’s an all-out war.
A few weeks before my arrival, São Paulo prison gangs, with the help of their street “soldiers” on the outside, shut down the entire city of 19 million people. One of their demands was more televisions in the jails, so the leaders could watch the World Cup. Since I left, the gangs have gone on a rampage that meets most definitions of terrorism—attacks on the symbols of state power including buses, banks, and police stations.
As fans of the Brazilian movie City of God know, if you want to see the effects of the war on drugs in Rio, you have to go to the favelas. My choice was Rocinha—the largest slum in South America, with a population of 127,000 squeezed into an area the size of a small college campus—because foreigner-friendly tours of Rocinha operate on a daily basis.
Martha Vasconcellos, our no-nonsense guide, wanted to stress that while conditions in Rocinha were far from ideal, they were far from desperate. This might be the other side of paradise, but it was not hell. And it was true. I’ve been to far worse places: Camden, N.J., the West Bank, Graceland. Recent government investment in basic social services like garbage collection and electricity helped clean up the area and entice private investment. Rocinha had a McDonald’s and two banks with ATMs, the Third World symbol of progress.
Still, it was hard not to wince at the overcrowding. Early 20th-century squatters—rural laborers looking for work building modern Rio—on this former military camp along the slope of a rain-forested mountain could not legally own the land, but they did own their houses, so they sold the rights to build on top of their roofs. The second-story householders would then sell the rights to build on their roofs to new arrivals, and so forth. The result was a hodgepodge of four- and five-story buildings erected by different families with different materials during different time periods. The overall impression walking through the narrow alleyways dotted with tiny homes, shops, and restaurants was of a human ant farm.
As we rode in the minivan along Rocinha’s main thoroughfare, Martha pointed to a building.
“Do you want to see the home of the laziest policemen in the world? This is Rocinha’s only police station. Because of a truce with the drug lords, the cops may never leave the station except once a day to be relieved by the night watch, who are only allowed to drive through the favela in a clearly marked ancient cop car. So, day and night, all the cops do is eat and play cards.”
She went on to explain that Rio’s first drug lords were created in part by a foolish mistake made by Brazil’s military government in the 1960s. The junta threw “Communists”—mostly lefty student radicals—into the same maximum-security prisons as the hard-core criminals. The result of this mixing of the managerial class with the muscle, the rebellious boys with daddy issues with the desperate boys without fathers was the Red Command, a criminal organization with revolutionary pretenses. Favelas were their natural bases of operation, because the poor residents provided a pool of cheap labor and were mistrustful of Rio’s police, who have a well-earned reputation for corruption and for shooting first and asking questions later. Hillside favelas also provide a tactical advantage: The drug lords control the high ground, allowing them to shoot down on anyone who enters from the base of the hill.
As we stepped out of the minivan to walk through Rocinha’s shopping district, Martha said, “You can take your cameras; no one will steal them here.” I was pleasantly surprised to hear this, until Martha finished her advice: “But if you see a man with a gun, don’t take his picture. If you do, I can’t help you.”
Gun advocates like to quote Heinlein’s maxim about an armed society being a polite society. And based on Rocinha, they’re right. No one bothered us, but no one smiled either; armed societies are very tense. Armed societies are also apparently places where you can be shot for taking the picture of the wrong person. All in all, I’d rather put up with some rudeness and the occasional pickpocket. Five minutes into this part of the tour, I was at Martha’s side. “So, are we going back soon?”
Leaving Rocinha, I watched as a ring of cop cars stopped random vehicles to search for drugs. It looked exactly like any border crossing between two hostile nations. That’s when it finally hit me. If you use Max Weber’s definition of sovereignty as a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, then favelas aren’t the drug lords’ bases of operations; they are its disputed territory. If Brazil’s police or army wants to enter Rocinha in force, they have to fight their way in, as happened during a battle between rival drug lords in May 2004.
Sensing that the experience had been somewhat disquieting, the last thing Martha said was, “Ninety-eight percent of the favela residents are hard-working, honest citizens.”
I didn’t doubt her. My experience with the other 2 percent came as I was walking along Copacabana Beach, my hands protecting the money and memory card in my pockets, and my caipirinha-fuzzy brain admiring the gatas in the tangas, when a young man carrying a shoe shine box approached me.
“Clean your shoes?” he asked.
My first thought was that I was wearing tennis shoes, which are not usually subject to shining. “No,” I said.
Leaning too close for comfort, he waved at a bench behind me. “There, I clean your shoes.”
I turned to look at the bench. “No, thank you.”
Having diverted my attention like a good magician, he pointed at my shoes. “Look. Shit. I clean.”
As I looked down, there was indeed a viscous glop of green and brown on the tip of my left toe. This had all happened so fast that, momentarily confused, I looked up into the sky to try to see what bird could have so expertly plopped a turd on the tip of my shoe without hitting anything else. The skies being completely clear, I looked back at the shoeshine guy. He had a tissue in his hands. “I clean.”
As the realization of what was happening slowly dawned, I lifted my foot and let him wipe the majority of the poop-like substance off my shoe. “Over there. I clean,” he said. “I professional.”
“Yes,” I said as I walked away, a sheep barely escaping a shearing. “Yes, you are.”