There is a saying that Brazil is not for amateurs. I don’t think it was referring to foreign correspondents, but it certainly could be applied to reporting here. Corruption and a kind of promiscuity between organisations and individuals, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, mean that it isn’t easy to tell simple narratives of heroes and villains. How to tell a story of an ordinary person standing up to crooked authorities, for example, if that person has colluded with those authorities and even unofficially accepted money from them? What about drug lords who are sorely missed, religious figures who are involved in organised crime, and people indicted of terrible crimes, only to be released some time later? Perhaps there are still heroes and villains, but the context must be understood. These are muddy waters, more so than the Guanabara Bay itself.
Things are often not what they seem. Polarised politics are common everywhere now, perhaps a symptom of the dominance of social media. It creates a pressure for news stories to conform to often naive interpretations of reality. Where favelas have been removed and residents have been evicted, for example, it is common to find new families occupying the shells of those homes, often claiming to journalists and the authorities that they have lived there for years so as to claim the right to be rehoused. They aren’t telling the truth; but perhaps the wider truth is that housing is a problem here, particularly for the poor, and the trend for squeezing them out to the peripheries of the city with the miserable public transport system being what it is here has the knock-on effect of these occupations. It’s a reporting challenge.
This need for nuance was on my mind when I interviewed Jose Junior of AfroReggae, an organisation originally formed in the Vigario Geral favela which has worked to help young people escape from organised crime for 23 years. He negotiates with gangsters who want to hand themselves in, recently interviewing Brazil’s most wanted man, Celso Pinheiro Pimenta, also known as Playboy. The photos appeared in the right-wing news weekly Veja; Playboy was shot dead in a police operation soon after. A Brazilian version of when actor Sean Penn interviewed Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Penn was also blamed for the subsequent capture and death of El Chapo, a responsibility he refused to take on board. Penn said he had just wanted to open a debate about the war on drugs, though he admitted the Mexican authorities must have felt humiliated by the publicity.
Sitting behind his huge desk in Lapa, downtown Rio, Junior is even more unashamed. “The police had no way of following me into the favela. Plus, everyone wanted to do that interview,” he said. It’s undeniable that Playboy’s flamboyant behaviour, provoking the authorities with ostentatious parties and brutal violence, along with his middle-class background, all made him a compelling figure.
As is Junior himself. Covered in eight tattoos which are a collection of different religious motifs, from Shiva to a Jewish star of David, his sports luxe dress sense puts him firmly with his favela roots. Yet he is hated by many on the left, who see him as an establishment figure. Junior supported centre right candidate Aecio Neves in last year’s election, another fact he is unrepentant about. “We were proved right – today most of the country is against the government,” he says of Dilma Rousseff’s leftist Workers Party. His eclectic approach to tattoos and politics could seem like the typically carioca tendency to make deals with people regardless of your principles. Yet Junior insists this is down to integrity and loyalty, and he certainly displays that with his unapologetic defence of out-of-favour ex-Governor Sergio Cabral, for example. These are personal loyalties, and they span all classes, races and walks of life in Rio, the famously divided city.
On that big desk are photos of friends he has lost to Rio’s violence, a mixture of AfroReggae colleagues, childhood friends and police. Another controversy has been the organisation’s decision to work with police, met with bitter responses from favela communities grieving loved ones taken out by police violence. “I don’t have one side or the other. It’s very important for me to retain my principles,” says Junior.
Unsurprisingly in this most compromised and compromising of cities, accusations of corruption have flowed. It sometimes seems as if people are more offended by open conversations between different sides than behind-the-scenes collusion we all know goes on. Or perhaps people just assume brown envelopes are exchanging hands because it’s so often the case. Junior’s response? “I could be a very rich man if I wanted.” The accusations and even death threats do not appear to phase him, though what lies beneath the bravado is hard to fathom. Health problems including chronic pain have been diagnosed, showing that it does all take its toll.
“I’m not afraid of dying. I am afraid that people close to me will die as has happened many times,” he says, glancing at the photos of his long lost friends as he speaks. “I confess I’ve thought about killing myself a lot. But not out of fear, it was like I was missing a place which I had never been to. But I have to live, I’m the first person in Brazil who has confronted organised crime and hasn’t left this city or this country.”
A biography has just come out in Brazil of Jose Junior with intentions to turn it into a film. A regular on the nation’s powerful Globo TV, he is a kind of celebrity here, with a fan club as big as his anti-fan club. In the book, he admits he misses physically fighting with people, and it’s at that point I wonder if all this is just macho bravado. So many men will bore you here with tales of their street fighting adventures. Being seen along the country’s officially most dangerous man could be a kind of game, just like the dressings down Junior says he has given countless drug bosses for employing children or killing liberally in their communities. Rio is addicted to violence and it hardly seems to matter whose side you are on at times. This version of masculinity is king.
I had difficulty with the interview. Notorious or unpopular figures can be very telling about the society that produces them. But how to explain this mixture of naivety and knowingness, self-hatred and narcissism, honesty and artifice, mysticism and pragmatism, that is so typical of this place?
I ask him about admitting in the book that he had homosexual experiences in his youth, surely a tough thing for any macho man to admit.
“Everyone had them, that’s the reality for my generation. It wasn’t as easy with girls in those days. In my days, it was normal to have sex with an older man instead. I told anyone who knew me about it, I wasn’t being brave [in admitting it],” he says. That was my macho theory debunked. Suddenly, the Sean Penn/El Chapo saga looks very simple indeed.