Chapter 14 Excerpt
‘Terra sem Lei’ (Lawless land)
Amy sleepily read a text message from Roisin inviting her up to her flat to hang out for the day and sample a batch of hash cookies she’d just made. She looked down at a sleeping Guilherme with his mouth wide open which was a little off-putting. She contemplated the invitation for a minute a little uneasy about visiting Pavãozinho favela (in between Ipanema and Copacabana), it was becoming ever more dangerous. It reminded her of Rocinha favela back in the day before the ‘pacification’ (or cleansing). Two weeks ago there had been a shoot-out lasting the entire day, it sounded like a warzone, machine gunfire echoing around the rooftops of Copacabana and Ipanema from 8:00am. She’d been teaching in Ipanema and heard the shooting herself. However, the thought of hash cookies and a quick escape from ‘the child’ made her weigh up her options to venture up the hill.
On that fateful day in Pavãozinho, two police officers had been shot non-fatally, but three teenagers were shot dead and several more injured. A video had gone viral of one of the teenagers falling to his death from the top of Pavãozinho’s mountain cliff. The comments under the video made Amy sick to the stomach, stating he deserved to die. Of course she condemned drug dealers but he was only seventeen, another death caused by the vastly unjust social-economic structures in Brazil. The lives of these children are expendable and unfortunately, society perceives them as hard-core criminals rather than the exploited, manipulated children that they are. Similar to ‘county lines’ in the UK, Amy knew all too well the children caught up in selling drugswere groomed by gangs, to make them feel like they belonged. In Brazil the lives of these children meantnothing, they were disposable, all for recreational drug taking all over the world. As Amy and her friends snorted their next line in a club toilet, another Brazilian child would die for the privilege.
Amy always felt like an intruder when entering any community/favela. She was a white gringa who didn’t belong. She’d volunteered in a crèche for six months in 2010 in Rocinha favela, the biggest favela in Zona Sul,with an estimated one hundred and sixty thousand inhabitants. Favelas are slum-like shantytowns built on the many mountainsides of Rio. Most people have access to electricity (illegally), the internet and running water. However, the sanitation is pretty disgusting, with open sewage running in channels between houses in the warren of alleyways. Concrete houses were built precariously on the hillsides, sometimes reaching ten or eleven stories high. Each makeshift house looked like it was about to topple over. These tiny houses were sprawled within a labyrinth of intricate, narrow alleyways and steps making it easy for the traficantes (drug dealers) to run their drug empires and escape from the lethal bullets of the BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais). Within these communities, there were small businesses such as banks, local shops, restaurants, clubs, bars and even hotels. The majority of people who lived in favelas were blue-collar workers who mainly serviced the rich – they were maids, cleaners, cashiers, chauffeurs, nannies, cooks and the like. Residents were mainly black or moreno, poor and generally not from Rio, migrating for work.
Favelas/ communities, known as ‘Terra sem lei’ (lawless land), were controlled by traficantes. The UPP (Police Pacification Unit) was formed to police and pacify all of the favelas in Zona Sul from 2008, which meant the traficantes had to be eradicated (killed) by Rio’s elite police battalion, the BOPE. In hindsight, the pacification of all the favelas back in 2008 was executed purely for the Rio Olympics. The government weren’t looking to improve the lives in each community at all. They needed to clear up Zona Sul so that the rest of the world could visit Rio safely for those two Olympic months in 2016. The day after the Paralympics finished and the Olympic committee left the country, there was a two-day shoot-out in Pavãozinho, initiating the gradual return of the traficantes to all the favelas in Zona Sul.
Amy placed her money and phone in her bra before exiting General Osorio metro and started to walk up Rua Sa Ferreira. She turned left up the steep hill onto Rua Saint Roman and waved enthusiastically at Rocky, the human dumbwaiter and local celebrity. He was the local man with a van, without a van. He carried people’s shopping, furniture and grannies, up the steep steps of Pavãozinho for a small charge. She walked the first few steps passing the teenage ‘lookouts’ with walkie-talkies hanging around their necks, one was smoking a huge reefa. She was no longer shocked at seeing these twelve-year-old boys holding automatic weapons, nearly the same size as them. Traficantes recruit vulnerable children as young as five years old to carry out their dirty work. As expected, the majority of traficantes don’t have a long life expectancy, the police shoot first and ask questions later. Amy continued winding up the maze of tiny alleyways, and steep steps between the makeshift concrete jungle. She felt like an ant in a network of tunnels in a man-sized anthill. She always took the same route to Roisin’s even though there were millions of different options, her sense of direction was terrible. She couldn’t help nosing into all the tiny houses, their doors and windows open, there was no such thing as privacy in these communities.
Next, she walked passed the traficantes’ narcotics shop. There were five heavily armed twenty-somethings, all standing around a small table covered in an array of different plastic bags full of an assortment of drugs. None of them paid her any attention and she didn’t dare look at them directly, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary. She felt relief when she turned the corner to embark on the longest set of stairs to Roisin’s house, dodging all the dog poo on the steps, courtesy of all the strays, nicknamed ‘Vera Latas’ (turning cans) that lived there. Two little boys raced up the steps behind her, clutching onto their homemade kites, chatting excitedly to each other, she moved so they could pass. She then heard heavier footsteps marching behind her. She turned around and to her surprise saw a couple of heavily armed policemen coming toward her. She pressed her back against the wall so they too could pass, and watched them as they overtook the two children above her. Armed police in the favela could only be a bad thing, now she was on edge. As they reached the top of the steps they took a left at the T-junction, the opposite direction to where she was headed. If the BOPE entered the favela there would inevitably be a shoot-out and shoot-outs meant stray bullets (tiros pedidos). Tiros pedidos is one of the most common causes of death in Rio, most often killing innocent children, women and the elderly. Her heart started to thunder.
What should I do? Go back down to safety?
She wasn’t far from Roisin’s house and made a snap decision to continue forward.
She picked up her pace and turned right at the top of the steps. This led onto a long thin twenty-five-meter passageway. Three-quarters of the way down she looked ahead, narrowing her eyes to focus.
Is that? No, it can’t be. Fuck, that’s two guns.
Directly in front of her at the end of the alleyway were two young traficantes, crouched down with aimed machine guns directed at her.
Amy’s heart stopped and her bum hole loosened, she experienced sudden paralysis.
Her body was going into fight or flight mode. She turned around to make a sharp exit in the opposite direction, only to see the two policemen that had passed her minutes before behind her, also couched in the mirrored position with their weapons drawn. She was in the middle of them. Her mind was racing but her feet were planted to the ground.
Move! God damn it, Amy. Run!
She needed to make a simple choice, forwards or back. She was nearer the traficante, but who was more trustworthy? You’d hope the police but that wasn’t a certainty. She knew it wouldn’t matter if a gringa got shot in the crossfire. She was standing in ‘Terra sem lei’. She turned and ran for her life back towards the policemen, diverting down the steps that she had just come up. She continued to run not caring about the dog poo. At the bottom of the steps, she turned left, not wanting to cross paths with the narcotics shop again. She ran blindly through the web of passages. She had been down this route a couple of times with Roisin but there were so many twists and turns. She was completely lost now. In front of her was a small local corner shop, the fat shopkeeper wearing an inappropriately sized boob tube, was fanning herself with a newspaper and chewing gum indifferently.
Amy was shaking like a leaf. Normally she would never get out her phone in the favela but this was an emergency. She felt a little safer next to the shopkeeper as she quickly dialled Rosin’s number but it rang off. With trembling fingers, she texted messaged.
Help!!! Police here with guns I’m lost and scared. By an orange corner shop, big boobs works here.
Roisin responded instantly.
I know where you are. Go past the shop take the second alley on the left, go up those steps then turn right. I’ll meet you on the way.
She followed Roisin’s instructions.
Second alley, second alley. Is it this one? Yes! Steps, there are steps.
She started to climb taking two steps at a time with ease, adrenaline pumping through her body. Amy had never been so happy to see Roisin wearing simply a bikini top and shorts, smiling as she descended the steps towards Amy as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
“Sorry I’m not very glamorous, I wasn’t expecting…”
Before Roisin had a chance to finish her sentence there was a sudden crack of gunfire and Roisin automatically dropped to the floor. Amy wasn’t so used to hitting the deck upon hearing gunshots, so she was a little delayed in squatting. Another couple of shots exploded. Amy covered her ears with her hands, it was so loud and it felt like the shots were right next to them.
Am I going to die today? Is this it?
She would have literally defecated her knickers if she had been alone.
“Quick, this way, let’s crack on, the gunfire’s behind us, we will be fine. Keep down.”
“How the fuck do you know where the gunfire was coming from?” Amy whispered still crouching, glued to the spot.
To her, it sounded like it was echoing all around them and on the move. Another four shots were fired.
“At least it’s not automatic weapons,” Roisin whispered back.
Just as she finished her sentence, a spray of machine rifle fire drilled in the air.
“We can’t run up there, it’s too dangerous. Let’s just stay here for a minute,” Amy begged.
“Come on you eejit, do you want to get shot? We need to leg it. Now.”
Roisin grabbed hold of Amy’s hand and pulled her up the steps still half bent over. The automatic gunfire continued. It was deafening. They turned right at the top onto a long angled alleyway leading to some more steps. The blasts stopped. At the top of those steps, Amy recognised where she was, running on Roisin’s heels, one more corner and they’d be safe. Another single bullet fired and Amy automatically ducked. Roisin was already fumbling with her keys – it took an age to get the lock open. Both girls ran inside and Roisin slammed the door shut. Amy bent over double with her hands on her thighs completely out of breath, her hands shaking uncontrollably.
“You didn’t get my message then, so?” Roisin said breathlessly. “It said not to come because there were rumours that the BOPE were on their way like.”
“Fuck no, I haven’t looked at my phone since I left my house. Will there be more BOPE coming now?”
“I don’t know but we’re on lockdown for now alright.”
“I nearly shit myself back there. I’m not even joking.”
Amy sat at the kitchen table, Roisin filled two glasses of water for them both.
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