Journeys into ganglands

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

Bandit country. Apache territory. The Red Zone. All too often the press is responsible for labelling places as ‘dangers zones’ with little reason. I was in Sudan within a few days of president al-Bashir rise to notoriety as an internationally recognized war criminal: according to international media Khartoum was in a state of rioting and anarchy. I was amazed to find myself in what I still say is the safest city I have ever been in. A similar situation on arrival in tranquil Bali just a month after the first bomb and in hospitable southern Algeria during bombing in Algiers. All hype aside, here are a few places that could genuinely have features on any list of the world’s most unpredictable hotspots.

Over the next few days we’ll bring you stories from ganglands. Be warned they might not be what you expect…

Villa Pinheiro, Rio de Janeiro

A table by the side of the road is heaped with packages of white powder. A pistol lies in full view next to them. The handle of another pistol – this one obviously automatic – protrudes from the unzipped top of a sportsbag on the floor. Two men are sitting at the table. I quickly avert my eyes when they look my way.

There are lots of things that are not meant to be seen by outside eyes in Villa Pinheiro Favela.

At the next corner I hear the crackle of a radio and turn to see a teenager mumbling into a walkie-talkie. A pistol is stuck in the waistband of his shorts.

“So, now they know we’re on our way,” my guide whispers, also ostentatiously looking straight ahead into the heart of the favela.

I am on assignment to cover the work a charity organization is doing with street kids in Rio’s most unpredictable favela. The minor druglord who controls this particular section of the slums has given permission for me to come here. Without his say-so I know that any one of these teenage hoodlums – with a Colt in his shorts and crack cocaine in his veins – could simply stroll up to me and politely request that I hand over my precious camera bag.

We are still a couple of months before the ‘pacification’, when Brazilian forces will launch a full-scale invasion to reclaim what has basically become occupied territory in their country. Villa Pinheiro is perhaps the worst of these bandit zones. La Rocinha is far bigger and more notorious but the great difference is that it is run by a single boss. Feared as one of the most powerful outlaws in the world, he is the dictator of his own little city-state and deals on a diplomatic scale with the likes of The Congo. But the people of the favela claim that at least he keeps things on an even keel.

My temporary guardian in Villa Pinheiro, however, is lord of only about a dozen city blocks. He holds his territory with armed foot-soldiers only until the day when an ambitious neighbour becomes powerful enough to attack. In Villa Pinheiro rape, violence and drugs is endemic and it is a minor miracle for a male to die peacefully of old age.

The pacification at the end of 2011 made a huge difference but the fighting is not over. I visited La Rocinha again more recently working on another story and a friend there told me that things are not so different.

“The fighting among the drug gangs hasn’t stopped,” he said. “The police are here though so they have to be quieter about the killing. Now it is mostly done with knives and machetes instead of guns.”

The favelas of Rio have reverted to medieval warfare.

Tomorrow’s ganglands post: why you should never get caught in El Chorillo during a thunderstorm.


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