An Italian tourist who took a wrong turn into a favela and wound up dead with a bullet in his head today is another reminder of the ever-present danger bubbling below the beauty of Rio. The 52-year-old, Roberto Bardella (on the left above), was riding a motorcycle alongside his cousin Rino Polato, 59, to the beach when their GPS led them into the Morro dos Prazeres favela with totally unforeseen and grave consequences just before midday. Wearing professional riding clothes and Go-Pro’s strapped to their heads, they deviated from the relative safety of central Rio’s Santa Teresa neighbourhood, up a hill and into a hellish situation where they were possibly mistaken for police, but were in all likelihood simply the victims of a deadly robbery.
Lost and with Rio’s giant Jesus Christ statue they had just visited looking down over them, a gang of 10 armed men crowded the cobbled road in front of them, held them up and opened fire, killing Mr Bardella instantly. The exact details are still hazy but it seems his body was then bundled into the back of a white car while Mr Polato, still alive, was put in the backseat and driven around for a number of hours.
He was later found by police in a street dazed but unhurt, after either being rescued by them or the gang having earlier released him. Their motorbikes were also recovered, but there were no reports of arrests (watch the local news report above).
In an instant an innocent half-hour ride from Rio's manmade icon to its natural one, and their South American motorcycle adventure, which had taken them through Argentina and Paraguay, was brought to a bloody finish.
This is not exactly a unique occurrence though, just a few months ago during the Olympics a soldier was shot in the head and killed when he took the wrong exit and drove a carload of out-of-town officers, brought into bolster the security effort, into a favela in Rio’s north zone not far from the main international airport.
But this latest instance didn’t happen in the wild favelas of the north, instead it was not far from the city in one of Rio’s pacified favelas, the term for those with police which are considered peaceful, at least by the city’s standards. But with Rio's recent budget crisis the pacification program has been gutted with the results seemingly on display here.
Santa Teresa is a hugely popular historical bohemian neighbourhood where lots of young Brazilians and foreigners live and visit, being right beside Lapa, the epicentre of Rio’s nightlife. It has cobbled streets, little bars, and beautiful big, slightly run-down colonial homes and buildings the likes of which have all but been wiped out in the beachside neighbourhoods for apartment buildings.
Until you’ve actually set foot in Rio though it’s difficult to comprehend just how close normal neighbourhoods and favelas lie; how someone could fall from a peaceful suburban street into the hands of gangsters in a slum. For anyone here it’s obvious, but finding yourself in one doesn't necessarily lead to bad consequences.
I live right next to the Cantagalo favela (in my video below) which has a nice winding urban street leading to its entrance. I previously wrote about how it and other favelas around the south zone like Vidigal are being visited more and more by tourists and Brazilians.
But after this and a major gun battle between police and drug traffickers which left three of the latter dead in the Pavão Pavãozinho favela directly next door to Cantagalo two months ago, I felt the need to temper that story, and my other on safety in Brazil, with a little caution for anyone who hasn’t visited here yet.
By chance this daylong skirmish broke out the day before I came back to Rio from my brief return to Sydney to change my visa. But I had walked through that community not long after I arrived in March and loved it. After calm was restored my Brazilian flatmate told me that he hadn’t heard gunfire like that emanating from those rabbit warren hillsides for a good 8 years.
That said, no one here is really naive enough to think the quiet means the drug dealers and their turf wars and battles with police are gone. Given enough time it’s a matter of when, not if, that peace will be broken.
Around Ipanema and the south zone it is thankfully rare, and I can’t overstate enough after living here for nearly 9 months just what normal neighbours the people of the Cantagalo favela are. Besides the music blasting out from there which soundtracks most of my weekend nights, and sometimes afternoons too, and the odd bit of shouting, church sermonising and soccer cheers - all of which I love - it’s quiet.
But in the wash-up of today's atrocity, online news comments are predictably full of locals decrying the "hell" they live in, Brazilians saying they're too afraid to visit Rio, some ex-pats overseas wondering if they should ever return to the city of their birth and others wondering why the hell any gringo would ever set foot in this city.
I can only imagine the jadedness these people feel at these headlines which have been a staple of their lifetimes, almost as routine as the sun rising. I love Rio and it's people and I truly hope something like this never touches too close to home for me.
But if I can offer one bit advice out of this tragedy it's that tourists should never drive in Rio. You are in your own inexperienced hands and are easy-pickings should the stars align against you. Car and motorcycle jackings, or someone pulling up alongside with a gun demanding you hand over everything you have, do occur.
And then their are those who just simply take a wrong turn and end up another name on the list of Brazil’s 50,000 murders each year.