‘I can’t believe this. It’s been over an hour, and no one’s said anything about health, education, unemployment. They only want to talk about the police.’
‘You know why that is, Lula?’ I reply. ‘For these people, the police are a question of life or death. Their lives, their children’s lives, are in the hands of the police. They never know if their kids are going to make it home in one piece at night: the police are so unpredictable anything could happen. Our democracy will continue to be shitty until the day something radical is done about the police and criminal justice system, and everything else that goes with it – all those issues long ignored by politicians, and which you, too, have not really taken seriously.’
If there was one thing that I was worried about more than anything else when travelling in Brazil the first time, it was the police. Even back in 2002, as little as I knew about Brazil (the same as everyone else, sun, samba, football) I knew that the police had a bad reputation. When being driven round by a random dude who was renting us a flat he double parked his clapped out car and took my mate up to see the flat while I remained in the back seat. While waiting a police officer came up to the car and tapped on the window, he wanted me to move the car. I pointed out using gestures and extremely limited Portuguese that it wasn’t mine and that I didn’t have the keys, while staring at the rifle casually resting in his hand, pointing nowhere in particular. He ended up helping me push the car out of the way.
That was my only encounter with Rio’s law enforcers, and after reading this I’m glad that it was. I love Rio, it’s my favourite city in the world despite it’s mountain of problems, which you can’t help but become aware of when you’re there, and which are relatively easy to follow up on when you get home, which is what I did.
With Rio just finished hosting the Olympics and about to host the Paralympics, this is quite the timely reminder that the Rio that we see in the Lonely Planet and in brochures, and that we experience is just a small slice of the whole picture.
Using Soares’ own experiences and that of accounts he has collected and pieced together, Extreme City provides a harrowing account of Rio, that I digested in a day. Starting from his childhood, just before the coup that brought in the military dictatorship, through his time in Lula’s government to the present day, Soares describes life in Rio from the favela residents to the entrenched elite who will stop at nothing to make sure they maintain their grip on the marvellous city.
For me there were really three main threads in the book, the military dictatorship and the effect this had on a generation that it controlled or persecuted, sometimes horrifically, as the chapter No Ordinary Woman painfully describes. I was going to put a paragraph in from the chapter to illustrate, but I couldn’t do it. It felt tactless and disrespectful to reduce that chapter to a few lines, I instead will say it is a chapter that should be read and digested.
From the ashes of that seeps the all pervading corruption, from the bent police who seem to have emerged with absolute belief in their impunity to act and kill however they like, to the money makers and politicians who turn a blind eye to the abuses of the police and who line their own pockets with kickbacks and deals. Not mentioned here, but the Lavo Jato scandal currently dissecting the country is this corruption on an epic scale.
Lula’s disbelief that all people wanted to talk about at one of his rallies were the abuses that the police perpetrated against them, without any fear of reprisals highlights the roundabout situation that the residents of Rio, and other Brazilian cities are in. The politicians lack the nous to understand that education, health and employment are an irrelevance if you can be routinely killed by a cop without a second thought, and certainly without any hope of justice for your relatives. While diffusing a near riot from favela residents Soares expresses disbelief when a police helicopter hovers just above the angry residents, while an officer manning the machine gun pretends to gun everyone down while laughing, to serve and protect it is not.
The more you read the more you start to despair for anyone in Rio who is not in the police or a crooked businessman or politician, while Soares points out that there are plenty of good cops and politicians, his picture is one where they are definitely in the minority. The story of Luciano Barbosa da Silva, ‘Lulu’, while in some ways utterly predictable left me sitting there with the book dropped onto the table while I took a break, trying to enjoy the innocent sunshine and people around me.
But. There is humour there, the story about the Swedish people partying at his house, about the Norwegian who actually followed up a Carioca’s invite to their flat show the character of the residents of that city. And there is hope, the rally at the end of the book, along with the demonstrations before the World Cup and Olympics show that Brazilians are tired of the system, and that they do want change, and despite everything in Extreme City, I finished it with hope, because there are the good in there amongst the corrupt, and when people like Soares are willing to quite likely face reprisals for bringing the dark underside into the sun, but do it anyway, there is hope that it will change for the better.
War is part of the business, but for the police war is business by another means. The list of services rendered by the corrupt cops includes nightly rentals of the armoured cars used to storm the shanty towns, the famous caveirao (skulltruck), an imposing symbol of police brutality. Designed to protect the police, all too often it’s used to humiliate the locals with insults blared over the loudspeakers, peppered with random gunfire that spreads panic and chalks up tolls of innocent victims. Rental of a caveirao costs about 30,000 dollars a night.