The neighbors have their doubts about the woman called Dona Vitoria, but no one disputes that the drug trade thrives in their neighborhood or in this city where she has become a hero.
Dona Vitoria is the pseudonym given to a Rio woman who, fed up by what she says was the lack of response by police, videotaped from her apartment window a stream of drug sales on the hills outside her home. She gave the tapes to a local reporter, and the publication of photos from them won for Dona Vitoria recognition, relocation and, with good reason, witness protection.
The tapes also brought police storming into the Tabajaras section of the Copacabana neighborhood.
“This is an occupation,” said Mario Vaz, an officer from the state of Rio de Janeiro’s military police. “We have an emergency post here. We have another up the hill. And we have a command post for the whole area.”
That police have to “occupy” a neighborhood in the middle of Brazil’s most renowned city exposes one of the defining and dismaying aspects of Rio.
Tabajaras is a favela, a collection of mostly poor and working-class families living mostly on illegally occupied land. Local heavies and criminal outfits control daily life.
The hillside communities can be no-go zones for police. But then something happens to break a tacit truce, or violence within a favela becomes too much to ignore, or public pressure forces the police to move in. So they do, often backed by armored vehicles and helicopters.
That is happening this month not only in Tabajaras. Police just stormed into Dona Marta Hill and into Vidigal, a large favela that boasts spectacular views of the beaches of Leblon and Ipanema. The latest warring in Vidigal has featured not just assault rifles but also heavy machine guns, grenades and other explosives. To say the fighting sounds like parts of Baghdad is no exaggeration.
Tapes help nab suspects
Tabajaras is neither as large nor as violent as Vidigal. Vaz’s “emergency post” is, basically, a police sport-utility vehicle. He and his partner sit out of the rain in an alcove next to a shop that sells snacks and soda pop. The police arrived there at the end of August, right after Dona Vitoria’s story brought the heat down on their bosses.
In a series of raids, police arrested more than a dozen drug suspects, many of whom were identified on the videotapes. Several police officers seen taking money from the traffickers were arrested as well. And since the police arrived, the hill where the deals had been made has been cleared.
Vaz, however, does not pretend that the dealing has stopped. “They have moved somewhere else,” he said.
“We have no problems with the residents here,” said Vaz, 29, whose machine gun is standard issue for the military police. “They wave. They don’t say bad things to us. But they don’t really talk to us either.”
“They are afraid to be seen talking to the police,” said his partner, Leonardo Reis, 31. “I don’t blame them.”
Doubts about Dona Vitoria
Dona Vitoria was afraid too. As the story goes, she put film on her windows so the traffickers could not see in. Then she cut a small hole in the film and rested her video camera on a pile of books to record the comings and goings of men, women and children as they bought, sold and consumed drugs.
Stills from the video published in the newspaper Extra show children–not just teenagers but boys younger than 10–smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine. Some pictures show middle-age women stopping by for a fix. Some show boys and young men brandishing automatic weapons.
Residents doubt that Dona Vitoria is really in her 80s, as the police and newspapers said. They also doubt that she did this all alone, over 18 months, and suggest someone in the news media or police was working with her. But they cannot argue with the results.
And Rio is lauding Dona Vitoria. The judge who ordered arrests in the case praised her courage. A columnist in the daily newspaper O Globo declared her Rio resident of the year. And a court has ordered the state to pay damages because her apartment plummeted in value as police refused to do anything about her complaints.
Tabajaras, meanwhile, is quiet.
“You can go anywhere you like here now, it’s safe,” Reis said. “Just don’t come here when we are not here.”