12 December 2011

end of year experiment

Letters from Rio

I went, for the first time, to Vidigal. Vidigal is a neighborhood perched on a lovely slab of granite rising out of the South Atlantic. It was recently occupied by the Rio de Janeiro State Military Police, effectively and immediately removing the presence of the drug trafficking factions. The intersection and meshing of the human and the physical defies neat or facile description, so excuse my failure to convey the totality of the reality, as it were.

Vidigal is large and in an extremely beautiful, strategic, and increasingly lucrative spot. Sitting between Ipanema-Leblon, São Conrado (a very wealthy beach neighborhood) and Barra de Tijuca (where the Olympics will be), Vidigal had been under the control of Nem. Nem lived in Rocinha, and was the most wanted drug lord in Rio, if not all of Brazil. After openly directing the drug trade in both Rocinha and Vidigal, Nem was arrested a few weeks ago , found hiding in the trunk of a car. There was something very strange about the way Nem went down and the Military Police occupied the hills. Even stranger to think that one person had controlled so much territory and kept the state from providing basic services. Nem, the film, coming soon.  (I think I could have shown him a better way to get out of town before the police arrived, but that’s another story).

A few hours prior to heading to Vidigal, I had done some facebook, web-interface, electronic guest list trickery to print out some tickets from a website hosted in San Francisco. I had heard about the “thing” ( I wasn’t sure what it was), from the ragazzi italiani. The tickets told me I was going to a place called Alto Vidigal. From the Praça Vidigal to Alto Vidigal it was suggested to take a combi (VW van taxi) or moto-taxi.

While waiting in line to get the motor taxi, heavily, heavily armed PMERJ forces patrolled the principal street while the party rolled at the Praça de Vidigal, opening onto the Avenida Niemeyer. Death by machine gun was walking around. This is not a light-touch security solution, but rather a full military occupation of urban space: foot patrols, stationed cars, tactical deployments, air support, central command and control. Big dudes, big guns. I didn’t take pictures. 

I hadn’t been to Vidigal before the installation of this UPP, the 14th or 15th in Rio. The “Police Pacification Units” have been occupying favelas in Rio for about two years. Their actions quickly change the security dynamics, which had been previously controlled by drug gangs, City of God-style. They give notice of the occupation some weeks before they roll in, in order to give the bad guys time to skedaddle. Why? If they came in without warning, the gun battles would be pretty extreme and a lot of innocents would get hurt. There haven’t been as many bloodbaths as there could have been.

On the other hand, where are the bad guys going to? There are reports citing an increase in violence in other parts of the Rio Metro Area and in Rio de Janeiro state. Are the bandidos just heading to other parts of the city to continue their trades? Is there going to be a dis-proportional increase in number of  bandidos per 100,000 people in non-occupied favelas? Will the relative value of a bandido be less as there is a glut in the labor market? How does the occupation shift the dynamics of the drug trade? When the Complexo do Alemão was occupied last year, the police found around 40 tons of marijuana. To what degree these disruptions have influenced the price of drugs in the city, I cannot say, but it has certainly changed the dynamics of sale and distribution in Rio.

A big party wound up in the Praça: very loud, live music sprayed through speakers wholly unequipped to handle the tone or volume. Saturday night festa, military occupation rolling, a lot of people standing around watching the scene, everyone probably wondering what changes had been put into motion.  On a more banal level,  the moto-taxi ride was fantastic, the motoristas are top notch mountain riders, highly skilled. My first impressions flying by on a motorcycle were that Vidigal is relatively wealthy, with some big apartment buildings, established grocery store and small commerce…a big, vibrant, complex place. I won’t pretend to know much more about it than that, otherwise I’d run the risk of having this piece published in the NYTimes.  The roads were vertical, and well paved. It’s no joke getting trucks and cars up and down. It’s an ever-shifting obstacle course and a nice little adventure on a moto. Arriving at our destination, there was a hand painted sign pointing the way to Alto Vidigal. R$2 for the moto-taxi.

There is a little plaza in front of the Casa Alto Vidigal. Several big, camouflaged military police wielded around. Two Brazilians running the entrance found my name on a list that had been sent to them via my registration in San Francisco and with my printed out ticket, I got R$10 off the R$30 entrance (U$ 12). I handed my money to a young woman behind ceiling-high bars. As I was fitted with an armband, I was asked if I had any drugs with me, you know, marijuana, intimating the effervescent police presence outside. Three weeks ago, no one would have asked that question.

One of the undeniable outcomes of the UPPs is the explosion in real-estate values. Not only does the value of real-estate in the favela increase, but also in the areas around it, which have had a knock-on benefit of improved security. In some cases, there has been a 400% increase in real-estate values. When Rocinha was occupied, some house values increased 50% overnight. Alto Vidigal must have also seen an increase in its value as they pulled a large Saturday night crowd.

View of Vidigal with Leblon-Ipanema in the background
The crowd was predominantly young gringo, which is to say non-Brazilian. There was some Austrain bizarro that looked a mix between The Little Prince and Rod Stewart, here several months early for Carnaval. There was an Annie Lennox, a tight-jeaned German, a self-important and arrogant French film crew, packs of hipsters with their wry grimaces, a foreign professor or two, some gonzo journos, a live sax accompanying the dj, a packed dance floor, a chilly breeze and an incredible view. A third wave of partiers arrived at 3am. This is Gringolândia, a foreign outpost on foreign soil. We were there to consume, our privilege and safety now under the watchful eyes of the military police.

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