We Watched a World Cup Game With One of Rio’s Most Violent Drug Gangs

The sight of young men in board shorts and flip-flops holding high-powered assault rifles is one you never get used to. A few weeks ago in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most violent favelas, half a dozen such young men were sitting on plastic chairs around a small TV set that had been brought onto the street. They drank beer and chain smoked bagulhos, fat conical joints. One guy wore a thick gold chain with two plastic baggies dangling off it, one filled with white powdered cocaine, the other crack. A couple of others, we noticed, accessorized with grenades strapped to their belts.

Just a few miles away, thousands of fans from around the globe were gathering at Fan Fest on Copacabana Beach to watch the opening World Cup match between Brazil and Croatia. On their way, they passed a small group of protesters who over the last year have brought worldwide attention to the outrage many Brazilians feel about billions of dollars being spent to put on the FIFA event while many here still lack basic services like health care and education. But nowhere are the divisions in Brazilian society more pronounced than in favelas like the one we had just come to watch the game.

There are hundreds of favelas in Rio. Many, like this one, which we agreed not to identify, have been ruled by drug gangs for decades. As you approach the neighborhood, it’s apparent you’re entering a very different world. Headlights are switched off and the interior light is turned on, so the gatekeepers can see into the car and know who is approaching. Just past the entrance to the favela, which is typically barricaded by large rocks and tree trucks, you can spot the fogueteiro, a lookout who holds a firework at the ready to warn of a raid by the police or rival gang. Past him is the boca de fumo, an open-air drug market run by kids. On this night, they were doing brisk business, as the nation was about to launch into a month-long futebol-fueled bender.

Up the street, we were with the soldados, the soldiers who maintain security and enforce the criminal code. Our cameras were still in the car. We were invited here, but were still awaiting final permission to film from the boss, who runs the favela from prison. In the meantime, we spoke with our new friends. Sure, they’re excited for the Cup, they said, but they have bigger worries these days. They’ve been fighting off regular incursions from a rival group. And the police have been stepping up operations against them, too.

In 2008, authorities in Rio began a campaign to take back territory controlled by drug gangs. The so-called pacification program was ramped up in anticipation of the World Cup. Police special forces units would raid the targeted favelas, drive out the traffickers in a pretty classic clear and hold strategy. Then a newly trained community police unit, known as the UPP, would be installed to do the cop walking the beat thing, a basic public security strategy, but revolutionary in the favelas. The pacification program has been implemented in dozens of Rio’s favelas with mixed results.

But the favela we were visiting is still under the old cycle of police raiding, shooting it out with young traffickers and then retreating to fight another day. There is no question who’s in charge of the favela, but the soldiers we were with are always on alert, prepared to do battle at any moment.

Finally, one of the men stepped away to take a call. He came back with good news and bad news. The good news, we were told, was that we were welcome to stay; the bad news was that we were not allowed to film. The boss decided against it. There was no appeal process. We stayed and watched the game any way.

Three weeks later, in another favela, we finally got permission to film gang members as Brazil played Chile in the first game of the Group of Sixteen. We were confined to a stash house watching on a fuzzy, small screen. As the game progressed, and went to penalties, it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement for the home team, even surrounded by assault rifles. But within 15 minutes of the final shot, the room was cleared and the troops went back to work. We were swiftly escorted out, and back with the other half of Rio to celebrate.


Produced by Alissa Figueroa and Darren Foster.