Operation Peace

Forrest Hylton

As the Covid-19 pandemic abates in Salvador da Bahia, beneath a surface of relaxed tranquillity – the comedian Gregorio Duvivier calls it ‘positividade tóxica’ – run deep currents of fear, tension and violent terror: they are not new, but they have intensified. On weekend afternoons, a military police helicopter hovers over bathers in the water at Porto da Barra beach, shuttling back and forth between the Porto and the Farol da Barra. It’s part of ‘Operation Peace’.

Staff from the mayor’s office patrol the beach with special operations police, who carry AR-15s, inspecting the coolers of the hardworking people who rent umbrellas and chairs to tourists and locals. They’re looking for Heineken or Smirnoff (used to make caipiroskas) in glass bottles. Vehicles from the Guardas Civis Municipais and more elite units lurk at one of the entrances to the Porto. Most of the police carry automatic weapons. Senior citizens on the beach report that such shows of excessive and ineffective force were not seen during the country’s long military dictatorship – certainly not at the Porto.

It’s largely the work of the mayor, Bruno Reis, an ally of Bolsonaro in a city where the president didn’t win a single district. But Reis has the backing of the PT state governor, Rui Costa, who is genuinely worried about the threat to state sovereignty: Bahia voted 75 per cent PT in both the gubernatorial and presidential elections of 2018. Major Uildnei Carlos do Nascimento, of the 11th Independent Company of Military Police, is in charge of ‘Operation Peace’. He wants facial recognition cameras to be installed.

The goal, apparently, is to create the illusion that the police and government authorities have public order firmly in hand after four murders in the Porto and the Farol da Barra – an area popular with tourists and pensioners – in less than two months.

Rodrigo Cerqueira de Jesus, alias ‘Rough’, who allegedly operated in Cosme de Faria as a member of a crime faction, was murdered a block away from the Porto’s beach in early September (his mother and friend caught non-fatal bullets; the military police did some of the shooting – it is unclear how much, and likely to remain that way). The dead man who floated in the following day with his feet tied together was also presumed to have been a victim of organised crime. He has since been identified as Cesar Araújo Ribeiro (aged 66). Soon after dark on 10 October, Uéslei Nielson Cruz Santos, a.k.a. ‘High Noon’, aged 28, was gunned down on the Porto da Barra beach by a lone assassin who called out his alias before firing. The friends and family he was with were unharmed. Maurício Lima Santos, a 30-year-old parking valet, was shot dead by two men firing from a motorcycle during daylight hours at the Farol da Barra on 15 October.

The consensus among the wise heads on the beach is that the murders are related to unpaid debts, petty drug sales, and territorial conflicts elsewhere in the city. No tourists or residents have been directly affected except as witnesses.

On 22 October, the local homeowners’ association met with a range of public authorities to complain about broken glass, loud music and public urination. The mayor’s office rolled out an ambitious and costly plan to divide the sea up into four sections with a complicated buoy system, and fence off some of the reefs except to scuba divers.

The conspicuous police presence in Porto da Barra deters nothing and no one. The PCC, São Paulo’s – and therefore Brazils’ – dominant crime syndicate, is said to have reached an agreement with a leading regional politician about how they will operate in Salvador and Bahia. The PCC runs much of the domestic cocaine market as well as most exports.

In parts of the city tourists and pensioners never see, violent terror has escalated. On 13 October, six young people were murdered and twelve injured when a firefight broke out at a paredão, or street party with pagode music, in Uruguai, on Salvador’s northwestern outskirts. Many paredões are sponsored by drug traffickers, and thick with armed footsoldiers. Minor conflicts escalate quickly. On 19 October there was an attempted homicide in Santa Luzia de Lobato. The following day, in revenge, three gunmen from Lobato went to Capelinha de São Caetano and murdered Rafael Cidade dos Santos, 24. They injured nine others, including a 19-year-old who was playing dominos.

The same night, Ronald Pires Sampaio, a 17-year-old drug user (according to his mother’s testimony), was shot and stabbed in Nova Brasília de Valéria. The military police have set up a base in the local high school, closed because of the violence. Two men died in shootouts on Saturday, 23 October. On Sunday night there were three separate gun battles in the neighbourhood. The Bonde de Maluco are thought to be taking revenge on the Katiara for the recent killing of a trafficker known as ‘Little Ball’.

The long period of semi-lockdown, which began in February 2021 (soon after the even harder lockdown from March to November 2020), is over: September was Brazil’s best month in terms of Covid cases (650,203) and deaths (16,336) since the pandemic began. With an 80 per cent vaccination rate and a large number of adults who have already been infected, Salvador has returned to life much as it was before the pandemic, but at new levels of desperation, insecurity, hunger and uncertainty. New Year celebrations and Carnival are likely to go forward as scheduled. Yet the regional tourist economy may take several years to recover, if ever.

The whole country is reeling from a pandemic that, according to the Economist, has led to 680,000 excess deaths. Fourteen million Brazilians are officially unemployed, consumer price inflation is at 10 per cent, corruption at the highest levels of government has been exposed to no effect (the economy minister, Paulo Guedes, has fifty million reais parked offshore, according to the Pandora Papers, yet he remains in his post), and a spiralling economic crisis – a devalued currency, rising interest rates, a stock market crash, capital flight, promised cash payments of US$71 a month in 2022 but no way to fund them without pushing inflation even higher – shows no signs of abating.