Sao Paolo: Laboratory of Violence
Part 2: Feeding the family with hold-ups
Elvira feeds her family by arranging small hold-ups (which she doesn't carry out herself) and, more importantly, by dealing drugs, heroin and cocaine. Sometimes she drives to the Bolivian border to stock up her supply. But most of the time she just organizes her sales transactions in Sao Paolo. She calls the young middle-class men who are her customers "playboys." Elvira needs them, looks down on them, hates them.
She likes to talk, but not about everything. The storage room next to her bedroom is full of laptops, monitors, and keyboards. Some 200 computer accessories are stacked haphazardly from floor to ceiling and covered in a thick layer of dust. Next to these stacks are two boxes full of plugs and electricity cables. Elvira has no idea how to wire up a computer.
Tell us, Elvira, where is all this computer equipment from?
"That stuff?" She laughs. "It was just there one day. Just like that!" She snaps her fingers, coughs, hunches forward.
Elvira holds an intermediate position in the PCC's hierarchy. She's in charge of a small section of this favela, her own street. The thugs, drug dealers and small-time gangsters who turn up here don't pay rent, but they're accountable to her and pay her a fee, just as she herself lives here for free but answers to two bosses in charge of this favela.
Elvira's mother was white, her father black. "He was a bastard," she says, "a scumbag, like all men." She laughs.
Are there decent men too, Elvira?
She thinks about it. "Yes," she answers, "but they're locked up in prison, like Fumega, my husband. And since he's too good for this world, he's going to stay in prison until he rots."
Why was he put in prison?
She shrugs her shoulders. She has dark curly hair; she's missing three teeth and holds her hand in front of her mouth when she laughs. Her laughter sounds hoarse. In 18 years Elvira has given birth to 10 children from seven different fathers. One of her children, a 14-year-old boy, was shot a few weeks ago.
Shot by the police?
"No, no," she says. "The neighbors killed him -- I've already found out that much. They live just one street away. We even say hello when we see each other. They don't know that I know they killed my son."
"I loved him," she says. "I'll take revenge. It's just a shame I don't have a picture." She coughs and spits on the floor.
The PCC's year of violence
For Sao Paolo, 2006 is the year of violence. Never before have there been such intense and protracted battles between gangsters and the police, concentrated attacks that paralyzed the giant city for days. Buses were set on fire, hand grenades thrown from passing cars; gangs of masked looters roamed the streets at night. There was a power struggle within the PCC as well. An estimated 180 people died during the unrest, which began in May, spread throughout the country and has flared up again sporadically since.
All this violence amounted to a challenge to the Brazilian government by the criminal underground. According to people in the favelas, it was high time. Sao Paolo proper has 10 million inhabitants; it's the sixth-largest city in the world, the largest in the southern hemisphere. In this chaos of wealth and sordid misery, gleaming skyscrapers and gray huts, the criminal underground has issued its call to arms, and the upper classes have retreated deeper and deeper into enclaves of wealth -- places like Tam's VIP lounge with its muted lighting, where businessmen like Aquino and de Nadai chat about the latest shoot-outs on the street and about their acquisition of a new helicopter, the Bell 430, which is bigger than the Bell 429, a model Aquino already owns.
Nowhere in the world are there more helicopter landing pads than in Sao Paolo. No other city can boast a shopping center as exclusive as Daslu, where visitors are surrounded by flocks of liveried porters, tended to by small groups of picture-pretty young women and treated to champagne or Blue Label whiskey. What shopping center besides Daslu has its own ballroom and a helipad on the roof? Those who don't yet own a helicopter can buy one on the third floor of the building. Silken men's socks cost $180.
And the Rua Coliseu is just around the corner. Anyone standing at one end of this street should think twice about whether they want to keep walking, unless they've announced themselves to a drug dealer by mobile phone. In that case, they'll be met and tended to almost like a customer at Daslu.
Hold-ups have always belonged to Sao Paolo's folklore, an everyday risk that stewardesses, bus drivers and workmen are exposed to no less than the rich. Brazilians have the gift of casualness, and they treat hold-up stories as party talk. "The other day, in the car park, at the traffic light…"
Gangsters treat the money they rob as a kind of social measure, an enforced redistribution of the country's wealth, from people like Sergio de Nadai to those like Elvira da Souza.
A referendum held in October of last year saw 64 percent of voters rejecting a ban on gun sales. The police estimate that Brazilian households possess a total of 17 million revolvers, shotguns, pistols and machine guns. The number of people shot per year is 36,000.
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