News coming from Rio has been a little disheartening lately, particularly since the soccer World Cup kicks off in two months. The city is seething with discontent and in some under-privileged areas, social unrest is close to the boiling point. In its renewed efforts to flush out drug gangs from the slums (favelas), the heavy-handed police raids have caused civil casualties. Anger is growing among many of the favela’s inhabitants.
Collateral damage has occurred in spite of the police new modus operandi. To limit shootouts with the gangs, before moving in, the army and the police give them advance warning. By allowing the gangs to move out, bloody head-on confrontations are avoided. However, the weapon and drug issues remain. Drug gangs take temporary shelter in another favela and wait for the army to leave and then re-occupy their former territories. Lately, many gangs have crept back into the so-called pacified favelas overlooking the suburbs of Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio. The gangs must stay close to their market.
Brazil has the privilege of ranking first in the world for crack-cocaine use and is the second-largest consumer of cocaine after the United States. The task of the police is daunting. Removing the drug lords from the favelas is like shooting at a moving target. It is a lost cause.
To protest the violent tactics of the police forces, slum dwellers caught in the crossfire (often prodded by gangs) have taken to car and bus torching and road blocks. Daily confrontations are reported in peripheral areas. This new form of protest is rapidly spreading; the airport road is one of the favored target for blockade. Brazil is under intense scrutiny from the international media, an opportunity that the self-appointed protest leaders don’t want to miss. The misguided police offensive gives them plenty of visibility.
Last week among these bombastic news, some cheerful pieces of information went nearly unnoticed. We learned that Tarcisâo and Bela (not her real name) had been rescued from a brutal death. The first was going to be fried in a pan and the second barbecued. Rest assured, Brazil is not going back to its anthropophagic heydays, although the two are city residents they are not people. Tarcisâo is a guaiamum crab and Bela, a young female capybara, and both have settled around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in the upmarket southern part of Rio.
The wildlife living around the lagoa (lagoon) is diverse and plentiful and generally goes undisturbed in spite of the surrounding human activity.
Tarcisâo had been caught by hungry homeless people who also happen to live in the area, however illegally. The 60 centimeter-long crab carries a chip and lives with his long-term partner Gloria. They are both monitored by a wildlife NGO. The faithful couple is at the center of an environmental research project which seeks to establish the life expectancy of the breed. Tarcisâo is probably 5 year old and if it can escape another frying pan, could reach the venerable age of 15. It was freed when its identity was disclosed and an alternative meal was offered to its famished captors. Guaiamum crab is not an endangered species in Brazil, because they are a delicacy, few reach Tarcisâo’s respected old age.
Tarcisao with friend
Less lucky guaiamums
Bela’s fate was even more dramatic. It had been grabbed by drug dealers and taken to a near-by slum for barbecue. The scientists travelled to the dangerous favela of Rocinha to plea for Bela’s life. After some convincing, Bela was returned to the lagoa. Apparently ransom was not paid. For once, drug gangs received a little bit of positive publicity. Capybara is the world largest rodent and is commonly seen grazing in the wet lands around Rio de Janeiro. They are social, gregarious and gentle. Because they have a semi-aquatic lifestyle, the Portuguese colonizers had the habit of eating them like fish during Lent when other meats were forbidden. May be the drug gang was keeping this tradition alive.
Capybara and lagoa
Meanwhile across the Guanabara Bay, in Rio’s sister city of Niteroi, dramatic events were taking place. A one-month old, three kilograms baby capybara was spotted wandering alone near the busy bridge which links Rio to Niteroi. It was subsequently rescued by the environmental police. Too young to survive by itself, the officers spent part of the night walking around the near-by beaches looking for the baby’s family. Unable to find the family, the baby was taken to an animal shelter where it can be properly looked after.
At the same time, the local police were confronted by drug gangs. During the gun battle, one bystander was shot dead. The slum dwellers reacted by torching more cars and blocking more roads.
Rio is a city of wild contrasts.