A few days ago, I wrote a story that revealed an underground soccer league funded in large part by drug traffickers in a gang-controlled favela in western Rio. The article was published by Al Jazeera America with the title: Shooting Goals and AK-47s: The Other Soccer Cup in Rio's Favelas.
In addition to showing photographs of men armed with rifles draped in Brazilian national team football jerseys, it revealed stories of hardworking people who live in this community and whose voices are often silenced by sensationalism, bias and discrimination.
I was touched by the experiences of people like Anderson Nascimento Silva, a 23-year-old former football player who abandoned his dreams of stardom to be close to his family and his community. I tried to show that, despite living next to some of Rio's Most Wanted, residents of this often forgotten patch of houses still went about their daily lives and felt pride for their home.
Despite being released on a Saturday, which is a typically slow news day, the story quickly spread via Twitter and other forms of social media. While most commentary was positive, others chose to focus on things like the minutia of what certain types of rifles represent and how they should be depicted.
By the time Monday came around, Brazilian media outlets began picking up the story and selecting the paragraphs and sentences that described the activities of the area's drug traffickers. These sections were translated into Portuguese and excluded many of the human interest aspects that made the article different in the first place.
By Wednesday, local newspaper "Extra" obtained a cell phone video that was sent to them by an independent source who is not connected to the Al Jazeera America report via Whatsapp. The video showed some of the scenes described in the article of armed men shooting their guns in the air to commemorate a goal. It also appeared on the front page of the local daily. A police officer who used to patrol the region quoted in Extra's story said he had no idea this soccer tournament was happening inside the favela.
As a videojournalist, I know the impact images and sound can have and how a video like this can gain even more attention than a written piece. The :40 second clip appeared everywhere and emails and phone calls began flooding my mailbox and voicemail. Hours later, I heard reports that police in Vila Aliança were exchanging gunfire with traffickers and rumors that one person had been killed. I immediately thought of Anderson and his baby girl and of others I had met during my reporting.
Today, Rio de Janeiro state governor Luiz Fernando Pezão said a Police Pacification Unit, known as UPP in Portuguese, was scheduled to be inaugurated on May 23rd in the nearby favela of Vila Kennedy. The UPP program, which began in 2007, was designed in order for state security forces to regain control of impoverished areas occupied by drug traffickers. It involves several stages, the first being the "clearing" phase. This is when the BOPE, Rio's military police highly-trained elite forces, enter the favela and eliminate the boca de fumos where drugs are sold, apprehend weapons and arrest traffickers. This has taken place in nearly forty favelas. Most of the incursions have been peaceful, but some like the one that took place in Alemão in 2010 have left dozens dead, including innocent bystanders.
"We will be there now. We will be close. We will be in Vila Kennedy and, if we need to occupy (Vila Aliança) we will do so. We are monitoring and wherever those (criminal) stains still exist we will go," Pezão said, according to an "Extra" report.
There have recently been some cracks in what many favela residents call the "make-up" behind the UPP program. In Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, specifically trust in the community policing program dropped after a man named Amarildo de Souza disappeared (more on this case in previous blog post Singing for Amarildo.)
"I don't want to see anymore Amarildos," de Souza's widow Beth recently told me during an interview. "How many people have to die because of the police?"
Like in most large urban metropolises, the question of policing and its efficiency is not a black and white issue in Rio de Janeiro. There are many people who see the benefits of the pacification program and who applaud the efforts by the state's security secretariat Jose Mariano Beltrame. In some favelas, like Chapéu Mangueira in Leme, most people I have spoken to in the past are pleased with the police presence. Small businesses, like the "Bar do David" have become popular attractions and a hot spot for people from the neighborhood and tourists looking to sample owner David Viera Bispo's famous seafood feijoada.
Whatever the outcome is for Vila Aliança, I hope it ends up being peaceful and bringing some sense of improvement to this poor and historically forgotten neighborhood. This is a place that was born out of displacement in the 1960s and where the government has had little to no involvement. Although I would never condone or defend the presence of drug traffickers, people I interviewed said no one had been killed in three years (other than the player I cited in the story). If the pacification police program reaches Anderson's door step, I hope it will bring necessary services beyond security like local health posts and sanitation services. I hope he will be able to continue playing soccer on the weekends in the comunidade's grassy pitch and provide a safe and prosperous future for little Allyce.