Anarchy in Rio Carnival of Death

Shoot-outs on the street may be common in Rio de Janeiro, but the current wave of violence has shocked even Brazilians. The horror has cast a shadow over this year's carnival.

By in Rio de Janeiro


The blue chemical toilets at the Sambadrome, where Rio's carnival schools stage their annual parade, have many uses. Drunk foliões -- as the carnival fools in Brazil are known -- relieve their bladders while sweat-soaked dancers check if the glitter on their silicone-enhanced breasts is still in place -- and particularly merry revellers snort a quick line of cocaine to help them dance until dawn.

Cocaine and carnival go together in Rio. Beer vendors and drug dealers sell papelotes, small paper envelopes containing white (powder), for 10 reais (about €4 or $5) all around the Sambadrome. The police look the other way; officers often pocket a share of the earnings.

The dealers make as much during the four days of carnival as they normally do in two months, one police officer told the Brazilian daily Jornal do Brasil. Drug use is considered a peccadillo: Those who are caught with a few grams of cocaine or marijuana for "personal consumption" usually get off scot-free.

So it seemed pretty scandalous to most Brazilians when Estácio de Sá, the samba school that started the parade, called for a minute of silence in memory of the victims of violent crime. After all, the revellers in the Sambadrome are among the drug mafia's best customers -- which means they're also partly responsible for the wave of violence that has recently swept Rio. Most crimes in the city are directly or indirectly related to drug trafficking.

Unusually brutal

The series of recent crimes has been unusually brutal even by Brazilian standards. The police have found dozens of mutilated corpses in stolen cars -- the remains of people who had been tortured, most of them victims of the war between rival drug gangs. Heavily armed drug dealers drove at high speed through neighborhoods in northern Rio, speading terror. They shot at policemen and members of the so-called "militias" -- armed groups who claim to be acting in self-defense and which have driven the drug dealers away from many favelas.

Special police forces and drug dealers recently faced off in a firefight that lasted two nights in a favela complex in northern Rio. The access road to the airport and the Linha Amarela, one of the city's main traffic arteries, have to be closed almost every day due to shoot-outs.

But no crime has shaken the city as much as the death of little João Hélio Fernandes. His mother was assaulted when she stopped her car at a red light. She was hauled from the car, but wasn't able to open her six-year-old son's seat belt in time. The gangsters slammed the car door shut and sped away at full speed with the boy hanging outside the car like a doll.

The criminals dragged the child through the city for seven kilometers (3.4 miles), and kept going even though horrified onlookers alerted the driver to what was happening. By the time they stopped the car, the boy was already dead.

Spoiling the party

Brazil was in a state of shock for days. The crime, which occurred just a few days before carnival, casts its shadow on what is often called "the biggest party in the world." Now Rio is experiencing a carnival marked by minutes of silence to commemorate the murder. In the street carnival in Ipanema, the procession of the "Cordão da Bola Preta" carnival block in the city center or the "official" carnival in the Sambadrome -- the drums went quiet for a minute everywhere, in remembrance of the victims of violence.

And yet the samba schools themselves are often linked to organized crime, and many are in the grip of the gangster bosses who control illegal gambling in Rio. Just a few days before the carnival parade, contract killers shot the vice president of the Salgueiro samba school and his wife; they were probably the victims of a feud between hostile family members within the gambling mafia.

Most samba schools are located close to poor neighborhoods which are controlled by drug dealers. The escape route taken by the gangsters who dragged João Hélio to his death also led through neighborhoods romanticized as the "cradle of samba."

The city as battleground

Now the boy's parents have appealed to the general public not to forget the crime. They want the child's death to mark a turning point in the war that has transformed the Cidade Maravilhosa ("Marvelous City") into a battleground.

Governor Sérgio Cabral has announced a first step to address the problem: He wants to travel to Colombia after the carnival in order to learn what was done to reduce the murder rate in Bogotá and Medellin, cities formerly plagued by similar violence but now considered among the safest on the continent.

But one of their recipes for success will hardly be feasible in hard-partying Rio -- early closing time for bars and restaurants.

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