RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival celebration is a tourist attraction for thousands around the world, but a string of murders has cast a darker light on the otherwise vibrant affair.
On an evening in January, Marcello da Cunha Freire was murdered in a drive-by shooting. He had been leaving the Salgueiro samba school, one of the most prominent in Rio de Janeiro, where he was the vice president.
According to witnesses, unidentified people in a vehicle drove by the school, and three bullets wounded Freire. He was rushed to the hospital where he later died.
His murder was not the first at the school. In 2007, Salgueiro’s vice-chairman at the time was murdered early one morning. Another member of the school was killed in 2004.
Brazil’s High Crime
Between 1980 and 2011, 1.15 million people were murdered in Brazil, with more than 52,000 dying in 2011.
Brazil does not have the highest murder rate of any country, but it does rank the highest among larger and more developed nations. Only Mexico came close to Brazil’s 2011 murder rate of 27.4 per 100,000 people, with Mexico’s figure at 22.1.
With a murder rate so high in Brazil, and murders concentrated in large cities like Rio de Janeiro, these samba school deaths could seem like merely a part of what happens in the city every week. However, upon looking deeper into the issue, the possibility emerges that these murders were not random.
The Carnival Underground
At Carnival each year, the 12 best samba schools compete with each other to become Carnival kings.
The loyalty to and competition around these samba schools has been likened to that of soccer clubs in the country, with distinct colors, flags, jerseys and traditions.
Samba schools typically come out of disadvantaged communities in Brazil, usually favelas or shantytowns. The displays that the schools put on each year cost millions of dollars, which is a combination that Aydano Motta, who has written comprehensively about samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, states it is a dangerous combination of money and poverty.
She asserts, “No one cares about these communities and the schools outside of Carnival. The communities lack sanitation, infrastructure…and there is a criminal underworld that operates there.”
Many postulate that this underworld actually partly finances samba schools through jogo do bicho, “the animal game.” The jogo do bicho is an illegal gambling game, with people choosing animals that are linked to numbers drawn in a lottery.
People credit the leaders of the game, bicheiros, with making Carnival in Rio de Janeiro the global sensation it is now.
The so-called king of the bicheiros was Castor de Andrade. He died in the 1990s having earned a reputation as being both the “devil and the savior” of samba communities in Rio de Janeiro. He was the major patron of the schools, but did so through his gambling rings, which he also used to develop Carnival into the event it is today.
He also fortified the now-inextricable link between Carnival, samba schools and the criminal underground.
This connection exists today, with many schools still allegedly funded by bicheiros. The Mangueria samba school, for example, was investigated a few years ago for connections to drug dealers, scandals, and murders.
Motta explains that while the global community tends to only care about poor communities in Brazil during Carnival, the crime bosses have given consistent support. This support, however, can come with a high price.
It is currently unclear what the motives behind Freire’s death were. He was also an official in an important soccer club, which could have left him vulnerable to enemies as well.
Police solve very few murders in Brazil, so officials may never know what happened to Freire, or at least may not make details public.
Victor Nascimento of the Salgueiro samba school states that he and others at the school were shocked by Freire’s murder, but that, with Carnival approaching, they had to proceed.
“It’s sad,” he says, “but we can’t stop. We want to be the champions of Carnival and so we must go on.”
– Kaylie Cordingley