Justice at last for Brazilian drug war hero

The execution of a TV reporter by a drug trafficker sent shockwaves through Brazil. Now, nearly three years on, the killer has been jailed…

They began with his feet. Armed with a hidden camera and microphone, the television reporter Tim Lopes had last been seen entering a slum in Rio’s North Zone, at around 9pm.
He had planned to film drug traffickers flaunting their weapons and having sex with minors at a local rave, before making his escape.

Instead, the 51-year-old’s cover was blown.

Trapped deep in the Vila Cruzeiro favela (shantytown), Lopes felt bullets tear into both feet. Still bleeding, he was bundled into a car boot by the traffickers and taken to the nearby Complexo do Alemão, a labyrinthine network of slums 10 minutes away.

There he was tortured with a samurai sword and dismembered before being set alight. When police found his charred remains in a shallow grave weeks later only a few bones remained.

The execution of Lopes stunned Brazil.

Last week, his spectre returned to haunt Rio de Janeiro as Elias Pereira, or Elias Maluco (“Crazy Elias”) as he is also known, one of Brazil’s most notorious drug traffickers, went on trial accused of his torture and execution.

A huge security operation surrounded the 26-year-old, as he arrived in court in Rio last Tuesday.

Fearful of an escape bid, police ordered seven cars and a helicopter to escort Pereira from his prison cell. Heavily armed police special forces kept watch outside.

By Wednesday morning the seven jurors had heard enough.

After 40 minutes of deliberation, Pereira was sentenced to 28 years and six months in prison for his role in the murder. Six other suspects will be tried next month.

The killing of Lopes on July 3, 2002, sent shock waves through Brazil.

A series of anti-violence protests took place across Rio de Janeiro, while graffiti artists in one favela designed a mural to salute the journalist.

In São Paulo, politicians even voted to name a square after Lopes.

Now, nearly three years after his brutal murder, the trial has again stirred up strong emotions.

A leading member of the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) drug gang, Pereira once presided over the cocaine trade in 30 favelas. Police claim he was responsible for over 60 executions in one year alone.

Lopes often worked in the favelas too, as a reporter for Globo, Brazil’s largest television channel.

One of the country’s best-known investigative reporters, he received several awards for his work, often donning disguises to infiltrate the city’s remotest and most dangerous areas.

He was killed shortly after angering traffickers with his exposé, Drug Market, which showed an open-air cocaine fair operating on Pereira’s patch.

Infiltrating the slums, many of which exist in a state of undeclared civil war, is dangerous work.

When international journalists touched down in Rio in 2003 to cover the conflict in the city’s biggest favela, Rocinha, many wore flak-jackets .

According to Reporters Without Borders, 15 journalists were killed in Brazil between 1991 and 2003.

The perils of life as a journalist in the “Marvellous City” are captured best in the lyrics of Proibidão, a controversial style of electronic music native to Rio’s slums.

“The smell of burning tyres [means] the grass has been toasted,” shouts the Rap do Comando Vermelho (Red Command Rap), alluding to the so-called “microwaves” in which enemies or informers, like Lopes, are burned. “Let’s burn the informer from head to toe,” boasts another.

When teams of journalists descended on the Complexo do Alemão to cover Lopes’s death in 2002, they were greeted with an equally morbid message from the traffickers: “There’ll be more Tims.”

Some believe journalists have been ordered not to film in the favelas since Lopes’s murder.

“Sometimes they call and ask me to take the kids out of the favela for them to film,” explained Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, a social worker in the Complexo da Maré, an area known locally as the Faixa de Gaza, or Gaza Strip .

Pereira’s trial is also a grim reminder of how rising levels of violence are affecting Brazilian society as a whole. Since the cocaine trade took root in Rio in the 1980s, heavy artillery has poured into many of its 680 breeze-block shantytowns .

The anthropologist Luke Dowdney – whose book Neither War Nor Peace, launched last week, examines the plight of children in organised armed violence in 10 countries, including Brazil – believes such violence can be traced back to the country’s military dictatorship.

“There is a whole history of this kind of violence and violent police tactics,” he said.

“But human beings have been violent since the beginning of time. It’s not just to do with Rio . It’s about social inclusion.”

Dowdney, who works in Rio for the non-governmental organisation Viva Rio and studied at Edinburgh University, also thinks such violence is often exaggerated by the media.

“The Brazilian press only represents the bad side of these communities. Favelas are not all about violence and guns. If you ask lots of these kids whether they want to leave, they’ll say they don’t.

"You cannot just represent favelas as violent enclaves of poverty. There is no war in Rio. A war involves two military groups attacking each other,” he added.

Nevertheless, the trial of Elias Pereira has served as a vivid reminder of the ongoing conflict between rival drug factions engulfing parts of the city.

“The sentencing of Elias Maluco will not change the routine of drug trafficking and violence in any way,” said Marcelo Friexo of human rights group Justiça Global.

“The sale of drugs and arms to Rio de Janeiro works within an immensely complex and lucrative structure, in which favelas represent merely the final point. Maluco didn’t hold a position of any importance in terms of this hierarchy”.

“Because of their increasing youth, the ‘drug lords’ and ‘soldiers’ who work in the slums are easy to replace,” added Freixo.

“Their destiny is generally prison or death.”

Outside court, members of Tim Lopes’s family described their relief at the trial’s eventual outcome.

“The verdict was satisfactory. Justice was done [and] the prosecution was brilliant,” said Tania Lopes, the journalist’s sister.

But while the trial lasted just 16 hours – the city’s social problems will take much longer to solve.

“Trafficking groups offer kids social inclusion in a way society does not,” Dowdney said.

“These kids are responding to various risk factors around them. They are an excluded and marginalised population.”