Young black males make up the majority of the 38,000 disappearances in Rio de Janeiro between 2007 and 2013. (In the Shadow of the Hill film)
The population of Rocinha has been estimated to be anywhere between 70,000 and 300,000. Rocinha is nestled between two of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city. (In the Shadow of the Hill film)
In November 2011, a combination of military and special-forces seized Rocinha without a single shot being fired. (In the Shadow of the Hill film)
A young boy plays with a kite in Brazil's largest slum, Rocinha. (In the Shadow of the Hill film)
With Anna Maria Tremonti
Friday April 29, 2016
PIYA CHATTOPADHYAY: Hi, I'm Piya Chattopadhyay, and you're listening to the Friday edition of The Current.
PC: Deep in the heart of the largest slum, or favela, in Brazil, you have to shout very loud to be heard by the rest of that country, let alone the rest of the world. But that's exactly what those protesters you just heard have been doing. They're protesting the disappearance of one of their own. A bricklayer named Amarildo De Souza. Amarildo was a victim of Brazil's attempt to clean up its favelas and the drug trade inside them in advance of the 2014 World Cup of soccer. A new militarized police force was set up to flush out the drug trade at the time. But as a new documentary called In the Shadow of the Hill shows, the security force would have a devastating impact on the lives of the people that live there, in the Favela of Rocinha. Dan Jackson is that director of the film, In the Shadow of the Hill. And he joins us from Melbourne, Australia. Hey, Dan.
DAN JACKSON: Hi, how are you doing?
PC: I'm okay. So why do you want to make a film about the favelas?
DAN JACKSON: Well, that's a good question. It's something that had always interested me, and it likely stemmed from seeing films like City of God and Elite Squad. I just ended up in South America with a backpack full of camera gear and I decided to just go and have a look. I had planned on making a very short film of five minutes, but as soon as I got there, the place just astounded me. It had such a strong sense of community, which is a sense that I think is really dissipating in the west at the moment, so it really drew me in from the outset. The first time I was there, I stayed for a few months, and then four years later and six trips on, I've made a feature film when I started out to make a five minute short documentary. And I lived there for, cumulatively, over 12 months.
PC: I'm wondering in what other ways you were astounded, in this sense: that the favelas have a reputation for being quite unsafe, and I’m wondering what your experience was like there?
DAN JACKSON: Yeah look, they astounded me both because of the huge warmth and compassion I felt, just inherent on the streets in Rocinha. But they also astounded me because many nights, when living in there, I'd go to go to sleep to the sound of gunfire. I remember early on one of my first trips, I took a wrong turn down an alleyway and found myself surrounded by five or six heavily armed drug traffickers with guns held my head. I guess they'd seen me filming around the streets, and they were suspicious that I had a hidden camera and I was trying to film them doing what they do. So they patted me down and discovered that I meant no harm, and instantly smiles broke out onto their faces, and they started to offer me meat they were cooking on a barbecue and beers from a fridge, and invited me to stay with them. So it was a very strange situation and it was astounding both because of that side, the traffickers and the police and the ones between them, and also the amazing fortitude of the residents who are caught between this battle.
PC: That gunfire that you talk about hearing, that's normal for them, they hear it all the time?
DAN JACKSON: Yeah, I mean… the security situation in the favela does ebb and flow. There was a lot of times I was there, where it was quite stable and you would rarely hear a gunshot. Other times, it was regular to be kept awake all night with machine gun fire. So I mean, it really depends on what's happening at the time. And I don't know, often it's the police shooting at the traffickers and vice versa, it's a very dense and complex situation. Sometimes you'll have police shooting out with the traffickers because the police are sent there to do raids, and after the pacification, they had a more permanent presence within the favela. So it's a very murky dynamic. And you know, when you hear gunfire, you often don't know who's shooting at who, and what for. You just hear it.
PC: Your film focuses on, you just mentioned the word pacification, on the security force that was established to flush out the drug trade in the favelas. Just take us there, Dan. What was happening at this time with this security force and the drug traffickers in the favelas, and for the regular folks that live in the favela?
DAN JACKSON: Yes, so essentially, in 2011, the Brazilian government instituted a series of programs that in my view, their rather Orwellian term was called Pacification Programs. Where large swathes of Rio, the favelas, were controlled by these highly armed drug trafficking armies. And, you know, then to provide security for the upcoming sporting mega events, the World Cup, the Olympics, the police sent in the pacification forces to reclaim these territories. To stop the front page news articles of heavily armed drug traffickers and the shoot outs that were happening all too frequently. And to provide, in my view, an illusion of security in Rio de Janeiro.
PC: And so what kinds of tactics did the police use to clamp down on the drug trade?
DAN JACKSON: So the pacification programs, they happened in a few different waves. So first, they sent in the army, the BOPE, the elite urban warfare specialists, to kind of take back central points of the favelas. Which previously, the police would rarely enter into. After this security perimeter had been established, a special police force known as the Pacification Police came in, and they established a permanent presence within the favela. They built a few bases, they patrol the main streets, they occasionally go into the alleyways. You have to remember, the geography of these favelas is incredibly difficult. Over 90 per cent of the houses of the residents are only reachable by very, very thin alleyways. So police cruisers, the normal ways that a police force would patrol a territory is, it's just impossible there. So they drive up and down the main street, which is one of the only places that you can actually drive a car or a police cruiser, and then there will be kind of groups of them walking around the alleyways. But the place is huge, so it's virtually impossible to police unless you would have put in the presence of thousands and thousands of policemen, and they just don't have those resources at their disposal.
PC: And the hope of the police is, hey, if we're here, the drug traffickers, the dealers, will not be here. They'll go on their merry little way out of the favelas.
DAN JACKSON: Yeah, I think that was the hope. But the reality was that that wasn't what happened. In the four years that I’ve been working on this film, it seems as though the traffickers have really re-established control in certain areas of the favela.
PC: And at the same time, the police are picking up people. This pacification force is going in and picking up people and taking them away?
DAN JACKSON: Well, yes. There was an operation called Armed Peace in which it was a concerted effort to find guns, find drugs, arrest drug traffickers. And they spent two weeks of this Operation Armed Peace searching, doing everything they could, and they'd found nothing. So in my view, they got desperate. They started to pick up people who they thought might have known something about the traffickers, and Amarildo Emerald was one of those people.
PC: And Amarildo is a bricklayer in Rocinha, in the favela, and your film focuses on him. He was taken by the pacification forces. His niece, Michelle Lacerda, led a campaign to find what happened to her uncle. And I want to play you an interview, and for our listeners, as well, with Michelle Lacerda who was in Rocinha when I reached her last week.
PC: Well, before we talk about your uncle, you're in the favela right now. Can you describe what your life is like living there?
MICHELLE LACERDA: [speaking alternate language] [through translator] Living in the favela, well, we have to kill a lion every day. There's a very early steep daily learning curve. But the good thing is that we know everyone, we have a relationship with everyone who lives here, and that's good. On the other hand, there is, of course, our access to clean water or education or culture, that's very difficult. But it is more a pleasure to live here, because we have a community. And we learn, we learn to live in this way.
PC: What does it look like, what does it sound like in your neighborhood?
MICHELLE LACERDA: [through translator] The sounds that we have in the favela, there are the sounds of the day, and there are the sounds of the night. In the day, we hear the dogs barking, we hear mothers calling for their children, the children playing. Then at night, we hear the funk dances, we hear young people talking in the alleys, lots of laughter. But we also hear then the sounds of bullets, because the heavy trafficking that happens in the neighborhood, and also the police who respect the people who live here, who crash into their homes.
PC: Let me ask you, then, what happened to your uncle. Your uncle whose name was Amarildo de Souza. Tell me the story, really from the beginning. Who he was, and then the night he disappeared.
MICHELLE LACERDA: [through translator] On the 14th of July of 2013, my uncle went to fishing. And he came back with the fish, and he was cleaning the fish, and my aunt asked him for something to season the fish. And he had to go out. He went to the little bar next door to get some lemon and garlic. And it was there that the police from the Paz Armada, which is what they call the Armed Peace, they had occupied Rocinha the weekend before, Saturday and Sunday. And these are part of the Police Pacification Unit, we called them the UPP. And they took him to the UPP, to the unit, and they put him in a police car, they took him. And that's all that we knew so, far and it was only much later that we've discovered that he had been tortured and he was killed. And we never had the chance to bury him because they hid his body. We never had a chance for a proper burial.
PC: Let me back up, and just to clarify a few things with you, Michelle. Did your uncle have any connections to the criminal drug cartels or the drug world?
MICHELLE LACERDA: [through translator] He has no connection to the traffickers. But you have to understand that he lived in a risk zone. It's where the traffickers have their selling spots here, and it's where they sell their drugs. And for us, for most of us who live here, we grew up with these people, we know them. So while there is some sort contact, no, no, my uncle, he had no involvement with them.
PC: The day he disappeared, what did the authorities, what did the police tell you had happened to him?
MICHELLE LACERDA: [through translator] On the day that my uncle disappeared, we went to the UPP, the unit of the pacification police, and they said that they had set him free after they interrogated him, after they saw his documents. That was the version they sustained, and that was until there was a police inquiry. They said they had taken him, they had seen his documents, and then they had let him go. And it wasn't until near the end of the investigation, when they were locked into a container, the police, that they admitted to the torture and the death of my uncle.
PC: The version that police gave you from day one, you and your family never believed it. Why not?
MICHELLE LACERDA: [through translator] It's because we know that my uncle Amarildo, we know him very well. And he wouldn't have stayed, not even one day, away from home. He had been picked up before by the police, and whenever that happened, he always came to our house. And he always sought comfort with my mother, in my mother's lap. He had been threatened before, too, and his sons had been threatened. They had said that they were going to kill them. And he had said, you're not going to kill my children. And he had been threatened with death. So when they took him, and when they didn't bring him back, we knew that they took him and they must have killed him.
PC: And so you and your family quickly began to try and figure out what had happened to your uncle. What did you do? How did you try and find out more? Where did you go?
MICHELLE LACERDA: [through translator] After we went to the UPP, and they said that they had let my uncle go, after that, we went to other police stations we went to hospitals, we tried to get information. And then we went to a TV station, more than one TV station, and then one contacted us. Now, all of this happened right away. He disappeared on Sunday, and on Monday, we were at the UPP, the hospitals, and contacting the TV stations. On the Tuesday, that was the first interview that we had, and that was the first protest that we had on the main road that leads to the favela. We closed down that road, that was our first action. And we were asking for answers.
PC: How difficult was it to get answers from the authorities themselves?
MICHELLE LACERDA: [through translator] It was very complicated. The authorities and the people here, the middle class of Rio, they think that if you live in the favela, you are trafficking. And we had to prove that we were not involved in trafficking, and that they shouldn't torture and kill people-- even if they were, they shouldn't torture and kill people, they should arrest them. So we had great difficulty first improving that. But this was a time when Brazil was in the streets. We were demanding change. And my uncle was one person, but he was not the only one. We had help from a lot of people who were indignant with what was happening with the abuse of human rights, there were lots of people who helped us. And in this way, we were able to pressure the authorities to give us an answer.
PC: Your family received an award for raising an awareness for the disappeared in Brazil, the many people who have disappeared beyond your uncle. What has that meant to you?