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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

The Tumultuous Turano

Originally Published 24 July 2014

Ivan poses in front of the UPP (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora) in Turano. (Photo: MJW)

More than two years had gone by since I last visited one of Rio de Janeiro’s Pacification Police Units (or UPPs), today a world famous experiment in community police saturation as a means to retake territory long controlled by powerful drug gangs. Back then, with the exception of a little shoot-out here and there, most of the nearly forty UPPs seemed to be working quite well, at least when compared against the often violent rein of drug traffickers—and the equally violent police operations—of just a few years prior. Homicides in UPP communities had decreased by some seventy-five percent. Freedom of movement improved. Myriad new businesses opened, and state institutions, NGOs and private enterprises that had once retreated before the threat of criminal violence now returned. But a lot can happen in two years, and so now that I am back in the Marvelous City for a short bit, I thought it might be worthwhile to take another look.

As a matter of luck, I met an upstanding Military Police officer named Ivan at a birthday party in the Botafogo neighborhood of Rio’s wealthy South Zone, and we talked each other’s ears off. Twenty-seven years old and recently graduated from the police academy, Ivan is now working as a unit commander in a UPP that patrols the North Zone favela complex of Turano, a mountainside slum of some thirty thousand inhabitants, and a former power center of the Comando Vermelho drug gang. Admirable, I thought to myself. Intriguing. And as I usually do when I meet anyone admirable or intriguing, I stuck my nose in Ivan’s business and asked if I could visit his UPP sometime. He said sure. I said Tuesday.

I arrived in the Rio Comprido neighborhood around mid-afternoon, disheveled and sweaty from the bumpy sardine can bus ride. Finding Turano from there was easy enough, for all one has to do is look up to see endless slum stretching skyward like the Tower of Babel. A shady road lined with mango trees and two-story middle class homes takes you the rest of the way. Locating the UPP, of course, was a bit more difficult, but not really. I found it by asking, and as I might have expected, the first person I encountered interrupted her day’s labor to walk me to the commander’s doorstep.

There is a strange peacefulness to Rio’s favelas that obscures the poverty and social violence often attributed to these alternative housing projects for the poor. And being no exception, Turano seemed almost too calm and pleasant. In fact, I nearly turned around and headed back home after looking around a bit, as I have become once again afraid of ennui and all things humdrum. I wanted action, adventure, novelty, and it looked as if this was just going to be a boring ol’ walk in the park with some boring ol’ cops. Ahh…I sighed. But I’d be a jerk to ditch out at the last minute without notice, and since I hate being a jerk, I walked into the UPP headquarters all a smile and cheer.

Ivan stood from his desk as soon as he saw me enter, and he gave me a big hug. He introduced me to Captain Luis, the UPP commander, who in fine military style signaled the green light for my request to accompany a patrol through the favela. Roger that. Now we just needed to put together a squad of well-armed soldiers, able of body and mind, to trudge up through the favela labyrinth above. We found them at various checkpoints around the Turano complex as we drove one of the UPP’s five squad cars about.

Officer Albino, are you up for a walkabout? Right way, sir! At ease, soldier. Let’s go. Fonseca, are you in? A hundred percent, sir! At ease. Get in the car. Queiroz? Roger that, sir! Right on. We now had a patrol.

Altogether we were six men, including me, well armed and well able. Albino retrieved a FAL .762 caliber automatic rifle, one of a total of five rifles in the Turano UPP’s possession, and which is shared between one hundred fifty officers. Ivan, Queiroz, Fonseca, and Rocha were armed with .40 caliber government issued pistols, as well as their own private selection of handguns, usually something nickel-plated and pretty. As usual, I was armed with my camera. I was the only one who got to shoot anybody.

And I shot a lot, because as soon as we entered the first darkened alleyway, much to my surprise, the adventure began in earnest. It was no simple walk in the park. This was more a tactical incursion than a routine patrol. It was like a video game depicting full-blown urban warfare. Something out of Homs, Baghdad, Mogadishu…or just Rio de Janeiro, I suppose. It was exciting.

Guns cocked and ready, we galloped up the steep and narrow alley stairs of the favela, rounding corners with barrels pointed, ducking under concrete walls, and sprinting one at a time across open spaces. Each man provided cover for the next, the rifleman always in the lead and signaling the others to move forward. I huffed and I puffed, trying my best to keep my camera still enough to catch a good shot. Sweat beaded off my forehead and into the viewfinder.

There were lots of normal-looking people about, too. Potential enemies, I supposed, look-outs for the drug traffickers, who perhaps had snipers hidden in the rubble of abandoned homes. But mostly they were just residents going about their daily duties, going to the market or coming home from school. Old people sat idly on their door steps staring catatonically into the nothing, reacting to nothing. Others looked on at us in fright, which is what I usually do when nervous looking men with guns run at me. In the eyes of some I could sense a sort of impotent rage, a seething hate. This especially in the young men, nearly all of whom were stopped and frisked as we marched by. Hold your shirt up! Slowly! Hands against the wall! Now! I ain’t got nothing, man! Then it doesn’t hurt to check, then, does it!

I asked Ivan if things in Turano were really so tense, unsure if all this tactical gunplay was really necessary. Yes, certainly it is. Well, sort of. Sometimes, in some places, at least. You can never let your guard down, you see. These little bandits from the Comando Vermelho are crazy. Queiroz here, for example, he took shrapnel from a hand grenade not too long ago. Albino, there, a bullet missed his hip bone by a matter of inches. You see, they’re not afraid of us. They try to ambush us outright. Ay, gringo, we really should have given you a bullet proof vest. Better to be safe than sorry. Oh, I don’t think so, I’d feel a bit silly with a vest on, you know. Better silly alive than silly dead, gringo. This is true. This is always true.

The truth is that there is still gunfire in Turano every other week or so, and on occasion it is directed more or less at the police. Although the local drug dealers usually do not shoot to kill—but rather to slow down a pursuit long enough for them to run away and hide—even stray bullets have their way of lodging themselves inside human flesh from time to time. The police, keenly aware of ballistics and anatomy, therefore remain tense and ready to return fire in any moment.

The problem with all this, of course, is that nobody likes the guy who points a rifle in their face. And the police, in this fashion making perhaps more enemies than friends, seem to have lost the most important resource for establishing effective security and crime control: the collaboration of the civilian population. It is evident in the reticence of residents walking by. It is evident in the lack of civilian reporting of criminal activity. It is evident like a NATO patrol in Afghanistan.

Just as I was pondering all of this, Officer Queiroz spotted a young adolescent with a walkie-talkie, who upon seeing us, took off running. With that the squad went into hot pursuit, charging weapons forward up the steep alleyway stairs like the hills of Iwo Jima. A young man and woman with a small child were caught in the mess. Their eyes bugged and their faces cringed as they hugged the wall to let us by. My own heart raced, too, as I felt something wild was about to happen. Perhaps a shootout. Perhaps a simple apprehension of a walkie-talkie. Something. Anything.

But nothing. The boy with the walkie-talkie vanished into thin air, so to speak. He knew the nooks and the crannies of the favela. He had the speed of a leopard and the fear of an antelope. The police, unfamiliar with the terrain and weighted down with guns and ammo and bullet proof vests, had little chance at catching the young look-out. Even if they had caught him, I thought, the result would have been anti-climatic. It’s not illegal to carry a walkie-talkie, after all.

As we continued on up the favela, the view grew more and more beautiful. The sun was beginning to set, casting a golden light over us and the neighborhoods below. The Maracanã stadium, where Germany defeated Argentina in the World Cup finals just two weeks ago, was aglow like a giant sea shell. The Atlantic Ocean stretched eastward into forever, where ghostly sea liners faded into the horizon.

Ivan wanted to show me something incredible at the very top of the Morro de Turano. And it was. As we approached it, I felt suddenly confused, as if I were no longer sure of where I was. A magnificent building, shiny and new, towered over the favela heights like a castle in the clouds. It was an evangelical church, the Congregação Cristã do Brasil. It was the opulence of God’s Kingdom on Earth. I looked down at the city below. I looked back up at the glorious church. With Capitalism below and God above, I thought, the residents of Turano were sandwiched by false promises of wealth.

After a few minutes of rest and a discussion about the barriers to gentrification in Rio’s mountainside slums, we started the journey back down the favela. It was even more tense than the way up. A young woman had been following us, reporting our movements to the drug traffickers on Whatsapp. When she suddenly disappeared, we all felt that something was about to happen. And then…


A nearby explosion rocked the earth around us. I thought it was Albino’s rifle, or perhaps a hand grenade. The men went silent and rushed into positions behind a wall of brick and concrete. Residents had scattered, and there was no longer a soul walking about. I braced myself against a wall, camera ready in hand, hoping to capture the dramatic images of battle. But I was shaking too much. I rubbed my cheek against the concrete wall. It felt rough and cool. I prayed a little bit that no one should get hurt. I really liked these guys.

Fortunately, nothing more happened. A few minutes into the tension, Ivan whispered to me. It was only a homemade bomb, he said, one of those used for parties and commemorative events. No, not a rifle. Not a grenade. The bandidos like to ignite those little bombs from time to time just to scare us. But we are safe, so don’t you worry. But damn it, gringo, next time you have to wear the vest!

Despite the falseness of the alarm, the explosion had struck a nerve in everyone, and the tension among the men heightened further. Our patrol no longer seemed like an urban warfare video game, but rather a potential disaster of epic proportions. Ivan, visibly unnerved, ordered a quick return to the UPP base at the bottom of the favela. We trotted down. At a fork in the alleyway, there was a brief argument as to which path went where. A panic crept to the fore, and sank back down, averted by a quick decision. Left, right, in the end it didn’t matter, for all ways downward led home, and before long we were back in the peace and calm of the base. Everyone alive. Everyone happy.

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