“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
In the above photo, on the right, is favela Vidigal, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio, contrasted against the luxury high rises, beautiful hillside houses and golf course of Gavea on the left.
Life’s lows accentuate its highs. Part of what has always mesmerized me about Brazil is that it is a country of dichotomies. Michelin star restaurants and some of the nicest beaches in the world exist against a backdrop of abject poverty and violence.
Learning to speak Portuguese has opened a window for me into the mindset of Brazilians, and I am in awe of their positivity and warmth, even those living in the depths of poverty. The sign below reads: “People suffer a lot for the little that is missing and rejoice little for the much that they have.”
I took that photo in the middle of favela do Pavão-Pavãozinho, where I was led around by the kingpin himself. A hundred feet from a major avenue in Copacabana, the world changes dramatically. Young men with M-4s and AK-47s tricked out with military grade scopes, grenades, and glocks were stationed at various intersections (we were forbidden from photographing them) where they counted money and sorted drugs. Marco, as we will call him, told me that crack cocaine is destroying his country.
There is very little crime in the favelas – crime attracts unwanted attention, so offenders are punished severely. Walking with Marco was as safe as I’ve felt in Brazil. The photo below shows the solitary confinement cell in which his soldiers (as he calls them) hold people who commit crimes while they await their “sentence” – they are given one bottle of water a day.
And while Marco punishes those who steal, he seems disconnected from his role in perpetuating that theft. His men sell the crack that Favela residents get hooked on, which they then steal to be able to afford. But he also delivers tons of food and supplies to people in the favela who need assistance; people who get little to no support from the government.
We took a left turn twenty feet after a checkpoint where four of Marco’s 550 soldiers were sorting drugs. Directly in front of us was a parked cop car with four civil policemen standing around, and one of Marco’s soldiers putting money into envelopes. The cops waved casually to Marco, who pays them around 10x more than their police salaries.
The military police are different.
When they enter the favela, people die. Reports are common of these police torturing civilians for information. In the lead up to the World Cup, Brazil began a process know as “pacifying” its favelas – tanks, snipers, and elite forces rolled into urban neighborhoods in an effort to take back control of the favelas from the gangs who ran them. In the aftermath, the unit built to be stationed within the favelas (UPP) began to dissolve as funds were redirected elsewhere. Public faith in the UPP has also eroded with incidents like the 2017 videoed execution of suspects by two Rio police officers. With the civil police reluctant to enter the favelas, gradually the power vacuum they left has been filled by new gangs like Marcos.
At the end of the tour, Marco could only walk us to the edge of the favela, explaining that he was unable to leave for ten years as part of the terms of his release from prison. He openly admitted that bribery got him a reduced sentence, and that his crime was stacking tires on a child rapist, setting him on fire and pushing him down the hill of the favela, an infamous execution method in Brazil. Whether it’s true or not I can’t say.
I used to believe that there was such a thing as “the good guys” and the “bad guys.” It is hard to say who is who in the story of Brazil. It would seem that as Solzhenitsyn suggested in Gulag Archipelago, there is no black and white. Only grey.