While the medal podiums fill and rousing cheers echo around the Olympic stadiums in Rio, the homicide squad doesn’t get the night off. Especially not in the violent slum area of Baixada Fluminense.
This is one of the worst districts for murder in Rio, the signature city in a country where there are 60,000 murders a year, according to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security.
We took a rare ride-along with the homicide squad. They’re busy men who don’t want to be quoted, but did want their work to be seen.
The glitter and neon spandex of the Olympics haven’t polished life up here in the slums. In fact, you could argue that the diversion of funds for athletes’ villages and venues depleted funds, just when they needed them most in this time of economic crisis.
Twenty-six bullet holes
A recession has seen murder soar by 38% — and violent crime by 80% — in Rio state, year on year, according to Brazil’s Public Security Institute.
The homicide squad answers an average of four murder calls a day. One day they answered 17. On Saturday night, we join them for their third murder call of their 24-hour shift, just around 11 p.m.
The scene was at first secured by military police, but around the body there are no signs of grief — just a clean white towel placed respectfully by a local on his face, a sign of the callous, quick, and staggeringly brutal end this young man met.
His shoes are missing, it seems, unless he chose to wear clean new white flip flops and socks when he made his last trip from home.
The forensic examiner inhales slightly when she tells us how many bullet holes she found in him. Twenty-six. Many of the casings are scattered around the body, but one lays next to his head from the final execution shot to the temple. It’s a large number — even for Rio’s gang murders — a figure usually reserved for revenge killings against those who talk to the police.
Deprived of final dignity
But this case, locals tell us coldly, seems simpler. Next to the body lies a motorcycle helmet, but no motorcycle. A local woman who eyes the new helmet as a potential acquisition is one of many who tell us the dead man was a thief, caught by local militia. It is possible, they say, that he stole the motorcycle he was riding on, then obviously took a wrong turn. The motorcycle seems to have been taken away.
Three different pistols were used in the murder, the police deduce from the shells they find. Another gun is found at the scene. The medical examiner delicately reaches into the dead man’s shorts and finds a revolver in his groin, hidden and unused.
There are no other means left on the man to identify him. The examiner searches his blood-soaked bag but finds no ID or phone, just the case the phone once sat in. Someone has clearly deprived this victim of the final dignity of even being identified.
So it falls to forensics to try and work out who he was. The gun, odd and twisted as it sounds, may be the best chance for that. A police officer sweeps it for prints, and will test its ballistics. Maybe it will lead them to another crime, and then a name for the dead man.
Murder doesn’t stop for the Olympics
For a brief moment, the tense calm of the street is shattered by a loud crackle. It is celebratory fireworks, but some days it is gunfire. At about the time the young man was killed, the 100 meter women’s final was underway across town. The infectious enthusiasm for camaraderie and harmony of the Games is unseen here.
There is a fast process at work. Within the hour, while investigators are still struggling to even learn the man’s name, a truck arrives to remove the body. The truck has four separate berths in the back, currently empty, and dirty plastic baths — testament to the commonplace nature of violent death here — that slide in and out, onto which they drag this man’s body bag.
Saturday night is turning into Sunday morning, and somewhere, somebody must be wondering where this man has gone to.
Police tell us here they’re in a civil war. It’s savage beat, and this murder didn’t stop for the Olympics. And the Games did not pause either for the loss of this one life.