Under Siege in Salvador

Forrest Hylton

Classes were cancelled at the Universidade Federal da Bahia for a couple of days a few weeks ago because two neighbouring favelas, Calabar and Alto das Pombas, were both at war, leaving at least ten people dead. Both areas were occupied by Military Police (PM). Dozens of families fled.

One of my students apologised for missing our online class: he had been trapped at home listening to gunfire and helicopters for two full days; unable to read or concentrate, he had fled the city. Both favelas are strategically located for supplying cocaine to Ondina, where the university is, and Barra, the beachside district at the tip of the peninsula (where I live) – this is most important during carnival, when small fortunes can be made.

Last Friday, a police officer was killed – by mistake – in another favela, Valéria. The Bonde do Maluco, a gang that’s trying to take over the neighbourhood – indeed, the city – seems to have mistaken the police for their rivals, the Katiara. In response, an elite unit was brought in from Brasília to co-ordinate with local and federal police and the PM. When they tried to enter Valéria, however, they were met with grenades and automatic weapons fire. The police entered other favelas, including Periperi and Palestina, in pursuit of suspects. Nine people were killed; three police were injured.

I’ve witnessed this level of violence, gang warfare, organised crime and murderous policing once before: in Medellín, Colombia, in 2002, in the run-up to Operación Orión, which the army and police co-ordinated with paramilitary death squads that then took over, semi-permanently. Mafia factions there are currently negotiating their demobilisation with President Gustavo Petro as part of his ‘total peace’ strategy. The Colombian government’s chief negotiator just resigned.

There are no peace negotiations on the table in Salvador. Based on what I witnessed in Medellín, the warfare is likely to continue until BDM conquers most of the dozen or so contested areas, after which they’ll be in charge of organised crime – along with their allies in the Primeiro Comando da Capital, not to mention ‘friends’ in licit businesses and politics. This isn’t a foregone conclusion, of course, but it seems a safe bet; local gangs will probably have to cut deals to stay alive and in business.

The PCC, formed in a São Paulo prison in the 1990s, is South America’s most powerful organised crime outfit. The Comando Vermelho, based in Rio, also runs protection rackets in Salvador. PCC-aligned factions are unlikely to lag behind the CV for long, and may yet capitalise on the resentment generated by the CV’s practices of extortion and murder. Protection rackets used to be the preserve of the paramilitary militias from the western zone of Rio that produced the Bolsonaro clan. No longer.

A student forwarded me a video recorded by a BDM commander in Calabar. His troops were few but crazy, he said (in a play on words in Portuguese): the footsoldiers he’d filmed with his phone were skinny kids in flip-flops, shorts, tank tops or no shirt at all, brandishing automatic weapons. They are unlikely to live past the age of 21. Those who survive that long will have earned their combat stripes and a rank, like their commander, who profaned Candomblé and Umbanda by claiming to be a son of the orixá or spirit-god Exú.

Under Bolsonaro there was an upsurge in Christian evangelical militias, some of which aim to destroy houses of worship with African roots; this seemed new, though, a gangster professing to adhere to one of the Afro-Brazilian religions.

Thursday, 7 September was Independence Day, and a lot of people left the city for the long weekend, many of them to visit relatives in the interior, leaving an excessive, highly militarised police presence in Calabar, Alto das Pombas and Porto da Barra, as there always is in the days following a murder.

‘Pitbull’ is one of the hardest workers on the beach. He balances loads on his head that defy belief. I’ve seen him descend the steps carrying quantities of beach chairs that way with no hands: wooden tables, gas canisters, large coolers packed with ice and beer. You name it, he can carry it on his head.

That, in essence, was his crime. That, and being poor and black. On the day the body turned up in the large styrofoam cooler, those tasked with dumping it had asked Pitbull for help unloading construction supplies. At some point they asked him to move a large styrofoam cooler, contents unknown. He did. Which is what got him arrested.

The police let him go, however, because the security camera footage exonerated him (he’s lucky they didn’t ‘disappear’ it). He is free now and has gone home to the interior. The fishermen are organising a collection to bring him back to work on the beach. One of the poorest of them told me that Pitbull once gave him four kilos of farinha, a two-litre bottle of dendê oil and some cachaça he’d brought from the interior. It will be good to have him back among us – a rare case, for someone like him, of innocence upheld.