CriMemoir series today. Remember, these are your personal experiences with crime as a perp, victim, bystander or just as a tangential impression. It's Crime, it's Memoir - it's CriMemoir - see what I did there? Shayne Youngblood shares a nerve-rattling night he spent in Rio de Janeiro. For some reason this piece reminded me of a Paul D. Brazill bit about hiding from drunken sexual rivals in an industrial oven... I'm pretty sure that happened, but you'd better ask Paul.
The Crime in the Marvelous City
If you mentioned Rio de Janeiro to an average Joe, he would think of four things: year-round sunshine, sandy beaches, stunning beauties on every corner— and violent, narco gang-driven crime combined with corrupted politicians that have been destroying this tropical paradise’s image for years. Okay, that’s more than four things, but whatever. Don’t buy into this stereotype. It’s not true. You simply don’t have stunning beauties on every corner of Rio de Janeiro. For reasons of a dubious financial nature, I lived in Rio de Janeiro favelas for almost three years. I had the unpleasant opportunity to see narco-bosses walking around with guns visibly tucked behind their waistbands, trailed by 17-year-old bodyguards toting assault rifles. The favela narco racket is an extremely well-organized business. The favela residents don’t feel threatened by the narco-boss or his army. They think of him as their protector and benefactor—which he is.
If you find yourself in a favela, there are two rules to follow if you want to stay alive: Rule #1 – If you have a problem, don’t call the police. Rule #2 – If you are thinking of calling the police, check Rule # 1. My neighbor once had a problem with her landlord. One day, he came into her room with an indecent proposal: she could stay for free in exchange for certain “services.” She moved out immediately, but the landlord decided to keep the deposit money she’d given him. She went to the favela boss and told him what happened. The boss sent his guys. The guys had a chat with the landlord. He offered his side of the story, claiming that the girl willingly left the deposit. The landlord returned the money the following day. He would probably have apologized, if he could’ve spoken. His broken jaw was wired. The most dangerous moment in the favela is the police raid. People get killed by stray bullets, just like they do when two gangs fight for supremacy. That usually occurs when the favela boss is caught, killed, or arrested. Then a rival gang tries to exploit the sudden crack in the armor of the previously undisputed rulers of the favela. The favela residents don’t like the police. They don’t trust them. They might not like the favela boss, but they trust him. If you are a gringo, your life is perilous until the residents get to know you. Once nobody thinks you work for the cops, you can be pretty safe—at least, safe for favela standards. After FIFA forced the government to increase security in the city leading up to the World Cup the police invaded favelas and set up UPPs (Unidade Policia Pacificadora – Police Pacifying Units); some of the favelas in the South Zone— the rich part of the city—even became tourist attractions. The North Zone favelas? Don’t go there. Why? You can disappear.
Have you noticed in crime movies someone is always struggling to dispose of a dead body? A body is evidence, right? No body, no evidence. For narco-gangs that operate in favelas, that problem doesn’t exist. Favelas are pockets in the city, with laws of their own. The favelas are filled with labyrinths of steep gangways between shack houses built on top of one another, usually on a slope of a hill, where nobody can find you. You could be shot down in broad daylight in the main favela street, in front of many people, and nobody would see it. Nobody would lift a finger. Nobody would call the cops. It’s a separated, isolated universe where normal laws don’t exist.
Dope dealers prefer to dispose of a body by forcing car tires over a living victim. They soak him in gasoline—and light him up. Burning tires kill the smell of burning human flash. They wait until the body has cooled before they remove the teeth. No dental identification. A man disappears like he’d never existed. Remember my neighbor from the beginning of the story? Well, after she moved away from the nasty landlord and rented a little house at the top of the favela, we became roommates. I was struggling with money, and I appreciated sharing the rent.
The very first night, we had an argument. She had the temper of a wild cat. When she saw red, she lost control of herself. Total blackout. Afterward, she was always sorry, but that hardly helped in the moment. That night, the argument escalated and reached the blackout point very quickly. She screamed and threw things at me. Then she picked up the phone and called somebody. She talked for a minute in a fast Portuguese slang which I couldn’t decipher. When she hung up, I thought she might’ve calmed down. I was wrong.
“Who’d you call?” I said.
“I called the boss. He’s sending the guys over to throw you out. They’re coming. I don’t wanna see your face again.”
The guys? Fuck. I froze. I need to get outta the favela RIGHT NOW. Before I could move, she grabbed my still-unpacked suitcase and threw it out, swearing and screaming. The suitcase hit the sandbag below the wooden stairs in front of our shack and sprang open. Luckily, nothing spilled out. I ran out, picked up the suitcase, and closed it. I stared into the darkness, trying to figure out which way “the guys” might’ve been coming. No way of figuring that out, so I took one of the gangways down, clutching the suitcase in my arms. The suitcase weighed me down, but it held everything I had. I ain’t leaving the damn suitcase. I crushed it against my chest, making it hard to breathe as my footsteps rattled against the gangways. I felt eyes watching me from the darkness. I knew what they were thinking: why the hell is this gringo leaving in such a hurry in the middle of the night? Dark, narrow alleyways, all looked the same. I slipped, tumbled, dropped the suitcase. Picked it up, continued. Shouts, footsteps behind me. The guys. I ran faster, sweating in cascades, panting. Shadows in front of me. I turned left. Another gangway. Right. Left. Right. Out of here.
I broke into a little praça (square). People were gathered there, blocking my way. I ran into them, using my suitcase as a battering ram to clear the way. The road in front of the favela. Cars, busses, passing by. I reached the bus stop. Sighed with relief. I made it. Then I spotted two men coming out of the favela, heading my way. Fuck. I looked left, right. No busses, cars. The bus stop deserted. Not a sign of a living soul. Just the two men coming my way, staring at me. My stomach tied into a knot. Shoulda left the fuckin’ suitcase. The damn thing slowed me down. A bus came out of a curve at high speed, screeched to a halt right in front of me. The door opened with a hiss even before the tires stopped rolling. I threw the suitcase inside, jumped onboard. “Step on it!” I yelled at the driver. I looked through the window. The guys started running. Fifty yards. Closing fast. I shouted at the driver. The door closed. The bus started gaining speed. The men reached the bus, slamming the back door with their open palms, yelling. The driver looked at me, his eyes wide open. I caught the reflection of myself in the rearview mirror. I looked like a lunatic. Sweat dripped down my face in cascades. Bulging eyes, scruffy clothes. The bus sped away, leaving the two men behind. I paid my fare and collapsed into a seat at the back of the almost empty bus. I put my suitcase in front of me, looked through the window. The first rays of the rising sun were gleaming over the ocean.
A Man From Rio available now.