I walk into Nova Holanda, a favela inside the Complexo da Maré. The black iron horse of the BOPE greets me, the Brazilian version of the American SWAT. My instincts tell me to turn around, but I have a photography lesson with my student, and I also really, really need to pee.
Walking down Teixeira Ribeiro is different this time. Some stores are still open for business, most have their metal gates touching the floor. The corner where I used to see the drug boys congregate is deserted, a couple of fallen motorcycles left in their place. I see the plastic table at the corner of Rua Principal stacked neatly on the sidewalk. It's the table where traffickers once sat around counting their money. A gray swivel chair rests on its top. The BOPE stare holes through my skull as I walk past them. It’s the one time I am not wearing my Fight for Peace T-shirt, foolishly thinking that enough people in the community know me by now. The thing is, they do know me. It’s the police that don’t recognize my face.
I arrive to the gym to closed gates, so I relieve myself in the corner. I call the public relations manager, Gabriela, on the phone, ask her if the gym is open today.
“No, didn’t you read the news? There’s been a lot of shots fired last night and this morning. Where are you?” she asks.
“Outside the academy,” I strangely chuckle.
“Oh Nick, leave now. I’m sorry nobody told you. I’m so very sorry.”
Two kids approach the gates with smiles turned frowns, whispering to each other in disappointment that it looks like the gym is closed today. I put on my T-shirt, hoping its blue emblem communicates a symbol of peace, alerting the authorities that I mean no harm. I see another person on the street wearing the same garb. My heart fills with relief. It is like a banner thrown into the air, like finding a fellow soldier on the battlefield. We brace arms. He tells me the same thing that Gabriela did. He tells me to leave as soon as I can. I tell him I'm on my way to catch the bus. He tells his companion that he’s going to walk me down to the freeway, to make sure that I’m safe. His friend starts walking with us.
I ask if this is because they are starting the pacification.
“No. There were protests last night. A police officer was killed.”
I ask if they are here to find the person responsible.
"They are looking, for someone..."
I ask if anyone has died this morning.
“Yes, a BOPE officer was killed in a shootout.”
I ask if anyone from the community has been hurt.
“I don’t know. It’s too early to tell.”
We continue walking down the street. There are BOPE squads swarming the neighborhood. They hold their rifles diagonally pointed toward the ground with a finger rested on the trigger. I am afraid that one of them might flinch and shoot off my toes. I see a motorcycle on the ground burnt to a crisp, bullet holes in car windows and on the sides of brick buildings.
“It’s a war here,” I finally say to him. He only nods in return. He has no words for this comment.
He leaves me at the freeway entrance, tells me to cross onto the other side.
“It’s safe over there,” he tells me.
He turns to walk back to his home, back down Teixeira Ribeiro.
“Vai com Deus,” I say before we depart. I’ve never been the religious type, but it’s the only words I can find.
“Go with God,” he kindly says in return.