Youth Torn Between Gangs and the Government

Stories by Monte Reel, Washington Post Staff Writer | Photos by Fred Alves for The Washington Post

'The Big Death'

Brazil Portrait 1
A warning is displayed on the side of a caveirao, an armored vehicle used by Brazilian military and civil police.

The tank-like armored vehicle that the police use to fight drug gangs is known as a caveirao, which translates literally from Portuguese as a "big skull." But Rodrigo Oliveira, commander of the civil police's special unit that carries out favela raids, uses an approximate translation that's a little more evocative: "The Big Death."

In case there's any confusion about what the vehicles are capable of, the military and civil police routinely paint a familiar symbol on the side of their caveiroes -- a skull pierced by a dagger, with two assault rifles slanted behind the skull like crossbones.

Rodrigo Pimentel, an ex-military police officer with a special forces unit, spent seven years raiding favelas in bullet-scarred vehicles like this. At 35, he now works as a security consultant and produces documentaries about violence in Rio. When he looks back on his life in the middle of action, it's with an odd mix of pride and cold-eyed analysis. If the imagery of the special forces -- like the caveiroes and their macabre emblems -- seems deadly and aggressive, he says, then it's because the special forces must be deadly and aggressive to fight the deadly and aggressive gangs. He recognizes the problems inherent in this.

"I always used to come home from a mission and tell my dad, 'Oh, today we killed two people,' or 'Today we killed four.' And at first my dad would congratulate me and say, 'Good job!' But after a while, he told me he didn't want to hear those stories anymore. He told me, 'Everyday you come home and tell me how many people you killed, but what difference does it make? I still can't go outside, or go for a walk on the beach without feeling insecure.'" Next Story »

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