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Boys with guns: meeting young members of the Brazilian mafia

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During my trip to Brazilian favelas with a film crew I met and interviewed members of the mafia.

I woke up at 5am that day, it was dark outside and everyone was still immersed in deep sleep. The day had come; I was going to meet the mafia!

If everything went well, I would interview them. I didn't know what to expect, or whether I should be scared or not.

My friend from the favela, Edmundo, had already notified the mafia and the favela locals that we were on our way to ask them a few questions. We didn't want to judge anyone; we just wanted to know the truth. The sun was high in the sky, and as we climbed on up my heart started to beat faster.

We walked past various shops: a barber’s, a beauty salon, a corner shop and even a tarot reader. In the favela, especially as large as our destination Rocinha, you can find whatever your heart desires.

No need to leave and go to the city at all. There’s a gym, shops and even an English language school. Houses built upon houses, some streets so narrow that you can barely pass – and there was a good reason behind this – when armed police units enter the favela, there is no way that they will pass through streets so narrow.

The sun’s hot rays reflected on my face. A medium sized mirror was fixed at the entrance of one of the alleyways – someone was clearly watching us. Before the entrance to one of the most highly situated streets, Edmundo checked for the last time if the camera had been switched off.

In a firm voice, he said:"One reckless move and you’re done. There’s no turning back now. We either come out of here safe and sound or we don’t come out at all. God, help us!" Our guide, as hard as he tried, couldn’t control his emotions. He drew two deep breaths and turned into an alley, constantly turning behind to see if we were still following him.

We walked out of the narrow alleyway and onto the favela high street. I then realised why we weren’t allowed to bring our camera with us. The mafia never lets anyone photograph them, let alone film them.

The ages of the boys carrying assault rifles ranged from 15-24. They often only wore shorts with their rifles slung from their necks. They walked up and down the street like this, whilst children around them played football, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. One of the gang members came up to us and politely enquired:"Ah, you must be from the European TV! Nice to meet you! Gringo girls are beautiful after all!"

He looked both my colleague Juliet and myself up and down, lit a cigarette and asked in a matter-of-fact way what we thought of the rifles and whether the mafia in Europe had similar ones.

"To be honest with you… I haven’t met the European mafia yet, so it’s hard for me to say," I answered modestly.  

I can’t say what emotions were running through me at the time, but I felt strangely safe there. There was a safe aura of sorts in the air that protected us. Maybe it was the people.

“Boys with guns” – that’s what I’ll call them, because that’s what they were to me.

They brought us a typical Brazilian cake commonly known as quindim. It looks like a muffin made out of egg yolks. We stood surrounded by about a dozen people with guns and one of them had a tray full of quindim. It was an absurd sight, but gave a lot to think about. 

They were armed, but not dangerous. The fear and intimidation was gone. I was ready to ask them a few questions.

A group of boys with rifles waited for my move and didn’t hide their astonishment, when I asked them out of the blue:"What’s your biggest dream?"

I too contemplated for a while whether asking a gang member a question like this was appropriate.

"WOW!" exclaimed a few of them.

"I have to admit, you’ve surprised me, people usually ask us how many people we’ve killed. Nobody ever asked us about our dreams. That’s a tough one, huh."

The boy with the rifle was clearly confused. He pondered for a while and replied: "My dream is quite simple - I want to have a bigger house with better living conditions. A home I can go back to and not fear dying on my way back. To live life without fear for my family, constantly worrying if one of my friends or family was shot in a police raid. That’s my dream."

Everyone knows the saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The gang member’s response to my question, in all its simplicity and honesty, made me picture him as a small boy with dreams and a heart of gold, who was forced into making some difficult decisions in his life. His words threw me off balance.

"What’s your biggest regret?" I asked him.

"You mean, do I regret killing some people? Is that what you’re trying to say?" he enquired stoically.

"No. I just want to know what you regret the most. What’s the biggest mistake you ever made?"

"Yes, I regret killing the people I’ve killed. I regret it a lot. I never thought I’d be capable of killing. But I am. I’m a different person to who I used to be. After the raid on the favela on the day my brother got killed, my one and only brother who I loved very much,"  the gangster could barely hold back the tear.

"After my helpless and innocent brother got killed, I couldn’t understand many things and I joined the mob. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to my mother, sister or father. I had to do it. I’m not a bad person, I just didn’t have a choice.

He was staring right into my eyes. He was no longer a stranger to me. I learned his weaknesses, his life choices and the path that led him to where he was. His eyes screamed to me for help, but I couldn’t ease his pain and it hurt me a lot. I gave him a big hug and he whispered into my ear:

"Please, remember, I’m not evil. I’m just a madman who was left without a choice by life."

I couldn’t find the right words, so I hugged him even tighter and realised then just how much love he needed. The more time I spent in the company of gang members and the more I learned about their culture, the more it dawned on me how little I knew.   

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