Last Tuesday, I went to visit my friend Brad in Copacabana. It was a little before sunset and there was barely any traffic for a weekday. Many cariocas were out of town on Easter vacation, a holiday that had been extended by three extra days thanks to Rio's hump day celebrations for Saint Jorge.
As I reached his house, I got stuck at a traffic light near the exit of the Sá Freire Alvim tunnel. As I waited, I looked up at Pavão-Pavãozinho, the favela that rests above the tunnel's mouth. Its colorful brick houses sprung out of a thick nest of trees, sky-scraping over the city's southern zone. Suddenly, a desperate mob began running down a staircase that connects the morro to the asfalto. Pedestrians who were stuck with me at the light began to get antsy and jump into moving traffic, barely swerving the speeding cars. Something was happening inside the favela.
The light eventually changed to green and I ran up the street to Brad's house. As I walked in, I could feel the faintest smell of smoke. It was coming in through one of the back windows of his apartment, which has a partial view of Pavão-Pavãozinho. A few minutes later, we heard a loud explosion which reverberated in the apartment. The noise was followed by a continuous crackle and loud screams. Before it got dark, we decided to go downstairs to check out the situation.
The smoke had grown higher and thicker and there was fire blazing over the tunnel. Rocks and empty glass bottles began breaking in the street outside the tunnel, followed by firecrackers. They were being launched from the morro. There were no more cars or pedestrians in the street, only silhouettes of police cars inside the Sá Freire Alvim's arch that was bleeding red from the sirens.
"The police are going to die," a voice yelled, followed by a massive chorus of indecipherable wails.
We couldn't move beyond the corner of Brad's house. The bottles, rockets and rocks were barreling down and we'd have no cover in the street. The actions and reactions coming from the favela were completely out of the ordinary for this neighborhood, something bad must have happened. I kept searching Twitter for signs of an explanation, when messages starting appearing on my feed:
Douglas Rafael da Silva, a 26-year-old TV Globo dancer and performer had been found dead in the favela early that morning. He was known as "DG" and was considered a community leader and a role model. He had a four-year-old daughter named Laylla. All signs suggested that the news of his death caused the chaos and outrage near the tunnel. Pavão-Pavãozinho residents accused officers from the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) of causing his death.
Some kids from the community descended upon Copacabana and began vandalizing trash cans and running through the street screaming. None of them seemed to be armed. One woman, who had run down from the favela, was sweating and out of breath. I asked her what was happening inside. As she inhaled heavily, she said:
"There are a lot of police up there, but there are more bandidos (a term for criminals or drug traffickers)."
She ran off with two other boys, who claimed they had seen people killed in front of them. Shortly after, the red lights in the tunnel multiplied and special elite forces, known as BOPE, went into the favela armed with rifles. TV Globo later reported police were chasing after Pitbull, a local drug trafficker who had escaped from prison. The flash of lights and popping sounds of gun shots could be heard from below.
I visited the favela the next morning. The atmosphere in the streets was still tense, but not threatening. The remains and debris of burned garbage still covered the road and police were on guard at every corner. A car had been torched outside the UPP station, the charred carcass of the vehicle remained in the entrance. In addition to DG, the latest shootout had killed another morador and wounded a police officer.
A man named Paulo Henrique met me and some of my colleagues near the UPP and guided us into the community. He took us past the concrete pitch where DG played pick-up soccer and lead us into a building. We climbed a narrow staircase which led to a balcony missing a large chunk of cement.
"This is where he jumped when they (the police) started shooting," Henrique said. "He was scared and jumped down there."
Henrique pointed to a drop that was roughly 7 meters down. It looked like the garden of the day care where DG's body was reported to have been found.
Initial coronary reports suggested DG died from the wounds he incurred from the drop. There are conflicting reports between different divisions of the police on whether he was hit by a stray bullet or not. According to the late dancer's mother, Maria Fatima da Silva, her son was tortured and murdered.
"He had a history of bickering with police from the UPP. In March 2011, they stole his motorcycle. Douglas fought with the police and he was imprisoned and taken to the UPP. After that, they filled his motorcycle with sand... those people (referring to police) have a habit of grabbing people in the middle of the night to kill them," Da Silva said, O Globo newspaper reported.
The tragedy of DG's death was heightened by the fact that he had been killed by police in a short fictional film he made last year. "Made in Brazil" followed his character, a young man who likes the beach and playing soccer and helps others in his community. When he witnesses police murdering an alleged drug trafficker, they beat him and shoot him. One of the officers was played by his friend Paulo Henrique:
"In the film, we showed the reality of what happens in our communities. I had the privilege of playing one of the police officers, I played a military police lieutenant," Henrique said. "He (DG) dies in the movie because he witnesses the police killing a criminal in cold blood."
DG was a dancer and performer on the popular TV Globo variety show "Esquenta!" hosted by celebrity Regina Casé. He was a member of a troop called "Bonde da Madrugada," which specializes in Brazilian funk.
"All of the "Esquenta!" family is devastated with this news terrible news. So sad..."
For 11-year-old Caique, a young dancer who trained with DG, he lost an idol.
"DG was everyone's friend. He would grab anyone in the street and start dancing with them," Caique said. "He really was the best."
DG's body was buried earlier today in Botafogo's cemetery. A procession accompanied the casket carrying protest signs and chanting "there will not be a World Cup."
The tournament begins in less than two months. Hundreds of thousands of people are scheduled to arrive to Rio between June and July and stay on until the July 13th final, whcih will be held in the city's renovated Maracaná stadium. Copacabana is one of the most popular neighborhoods among tourists, including Pavão-Pavãozinho and neighboring Cantagalo.
DG's case is being compared to that of Amarildo de Souza, the contractor who disappeared last year after being interrogated by UPP police in Rocinha. The case caused massive protests and even gained support among artists like Caetano Veloso, who held a free concert in Lapa to raise money for his family (more details on this incident in previous blog post: "Singing for Amarildo")
There are currently 37 active UPPs and three more scheduled to open. Pavão-Pavãozinho was among the first to be "pacified" in December 2009.
Before I left the comunidade, a pick-up game began in the makeshift soccer field where DG played. Before the first kick, players from opposing teams held hands and prayed for their friend, much like the scene DG had created in his film. A man in a red football jersey with the word "Peace" written across his back closed his eyes and said:
"Let him keep dancing in heaven... Amen."