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Day 54: Rio de Janeiro

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The blood-curdling insignia of BOPE, the elite Special Operations Battalion.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe pacification policy, on which the politicians of Rio pin so much faith in addressing what the Mayor calls, somewhat euphemistically, 'the issue of social differences', is spearheaded by a crack paramilitary elite called BOPE. The Batalhão de Operacões Policiais Especiais (Special Operations Battalion). They are the hard men with whom the process begins. How it works is that the drug gangs are given advance warning that pacification is about to begin and that they should surrender or get out of the area. Some regard this as weakness, but the strategy is designed to avoid street battles in which innocent people could be involved and property needlessly destroyed. Such is BOPE's reputation – they're trained by Mossad after all – that the drug barons usually disappear rather than take them on. Once they have secured the streets then a specially trained police force, the PPU, occupy the favela on a much longer-term basis, and try to secure hearts and minds. BOPE, of necessity, project a highly secretive image, and it's with some surprise that we've heard that they have granted us access to their training centre.

The rain has cleared away this morning and Copacabana is enveloped in a thick, swirling sea mist, which swathes the hotel like a warm duvet. As we wait to leave someone spots a small, confused furry creature nosing its way out of the ornamental bushes at the entrance to the hotel. It's a possum. No one knows where it's come from, but as it rubs itself up against the glass Seb, our sound man, goes to help it. One of the hotel's security men has other ideas. As the bewildered creature snuffles this way and that, he shakes his head, laughs and aims an almighty kick at it. Only a concerted yelp of protest from the entire film crew makes him pause, and instead of being sent flying onto the road and under the first car, the possum is escorted to relative safety.

A half-hour later I can relate to that possum as we wait at the security barrier of Brazil's most feared force. Above us is the unit's motto, 'Vá e Vença' ('Go and Win!') and alongside it the battalion logo, a pair of crossed handguns behind a venomous-looking skull with a knife embedded in it. Two guards, bristling with weapons and dressed head to foot in black, man the gate. They're the physical embodiment of a snarl. Whenever one of their men comes or goes through the barrier they give a very loud ritual shout and raise their assault rifles in an arc as the vehicle goes through. It is a convincing show of meanness and machismo, but at the same time there's something vaguely camp about the whole thing. The cut of the battledress and the intensity of the roar seem a little studied. We're eventually cleared to proceed up the hill to the base itself. This turns out to be a half-finished casino, a concrete shell with fine views out over Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf and the Santos Dumont domestic airport. Much closer to the base, indeed just below it, are the rickety roofs and fragile walls of a favela. It looks almost as if it might be for training purposes. But it's real.

Outside the building are several all-black vehicles ranging from small patrol jeeps to a gigantic armour-plated snatch vehicle with bull bars on the front and room inside for twenty or thirty people. Inside the building, a physical fitness class is under way. In their Special Operations T-shirts and shorts, without combat gear or body armour, this feared elite looks reassuringly like anyone else. Not all hard men, not even big men. When they relax between exercises their default mode is not the snarl or the scowl. On their faces I can see uncertainty, humour, nervousness even. In the nearby canteen, heavy metal music blasts out to a sea of empty chairs.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 54: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 222

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