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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

The Tactical Patrol

Police officers frisk and question youths while on patrol in Calabar, Salvador de Bahia (photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

We move swiftly forward in three rows of two, each officer training his weapon in a different direction to reduce our vulnerability to surprise attacks. The two point men lead with .40 caliber submachine guns, while another protects the rear with the same. The others hold tightly to their pistols with both hands, index fingers feathering their triggers. We are silent, communicating only through hand signals and the occasional whisper. We halt at every intersection in the giant maze of alleyways, only to creep forward again after a careful inspection of the terrain. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of a human figure darting away, and the patrolmen begin to sweat. A lone chair with a discarded, half-eaten plate of food beside it tells of a rushed escape. We briefly detain a sad-faced teenager who, with quiet unease, hands over his cellular phone for inspection. The police want to know if he has been sending Whatapp messages to the drug traffickers to warn them of our coming. Finding nothing, we let him go and move on.

Some of the officers make an effort to say hello to the residents we pass–boa tarde, senhora—and some of the residents respond in kind—boooaa. But these interactions seem forced, perhaps put on for my benefit. This is supposed to be community policing, after all. But the officers are sweating profusely, more worried about ambushes than building social trust. The residents are unsmiling. Their body language seems to convey a visceral urge to get away as quickly as possible. They seem to be fighting the urge to run.

On patrol in Calabar, Salvador de Bahia (photo: MJW).

After crossing a bustling street known as Beco do Comércio (Commerce Alley), our patrol leader tells me we have moved into the territory of a rival gang. “Caveira controls everything that side of the alley,” he points to where we came from. “This side belongs to Comando da Paz.”

Like most of Salvador’s slums, Calabar and its residents are divided between the “Skull” (Caveira) and the “Peace Command” (Comando da Paz). Organizationally rooted in Bahia’s overpopulated prisons, the two gangs have been battling for the control of the state’s illicit narcotics trade for over a decade. The war has claimed the lives of thousands.

When we cross a high point, the officer next to me taps my shoulder and points at something. “Take a picture,” he says. I turn my head, and the whole favela of Calabar opens up. It looks like a massive heap of broken red bricks and rusty rebar falling into a quarry. Just beyond this stacked rubble, towering overhead, porcelain white apartment buildings twenty stories high stare down at us so contemptuously that I feel a bizarre need to apologize for something; my appearance, my smell, my mere existence.

Calabar in the forefront. Graça district in the background. (Photo: MJW)

We stop in front of a wall with a warning spray-painted in large black letters. It reads, God knows all things, but even He’s not a rat. As I ponder its significance, a teenage boy crawls out of a hole in another wall behind me. He sees us and freezes, and then jerks backward as if he might run for it. But the officers surround him immediately, and the boy eases into his next plan of action.

Wearing only swim trunks, a t-shirt, and flip-flops, the officers quickly discover that he is carrying nothing at all except for, mysteriously, a shiny electronic car key.

“Where did you get this?” the officers lay into him.

A protest ensues. The boy insists that he found the key in the cemetery on the other side of the big wall, and that he has no idea who left it there or why. His face contorts wildly, forming cartoonish expressions of anguish and fear. I get up close to take pictures. Although he seems not to notice me, I get the distinct impression that he is acting all of this out, that he is performing almost specifically for me and my camera, or to arouse a greater force all together.

A 17-year-old boy found carrying a suspicious car key is questioned and then detained by police in Calabar, Salvador de Bahia (Photo: MJW).

The boy’s cries are Shakespearian. He swears on his mother’s grave that he is innocent, that he has done nothing wrong. Heads begin to peer out of the windows of surrounding homes. The onlookers’ curiosity soon turns to suspicion, and suspicion turns to anger. The officers lose patience, and they are growing nervous. They put the boy in handcuffs, and start to lead him down the steep alleyway towards the main station.

Grandma comes to the rescue, Calabar (Photo: MJW).

“Let my grandson go!” a raspy voice screams out. I turn to see an old woman on crutches trailing closely behind, spitting vitriol and spite like a firestorm.

A crowd starts to form around the woman as she follows us down to the base. Upon arriving, the officers rush me upstairs and lock the entryway below. When I look down upon the plaza from a second-story window, I see a hundred pairs of scowling eyes alit with a fiery, ancient rage, blinded by its own terrible might.

From somewhere below I can hear the old woman yelling. She thinks I am a cop, and she wants my head.

A crowd of curious onlookers in Calabar, Salvador de Bahia (photo: MJW).
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