In the fight clubs of Rio
Brazilian teenagers are flocking to discos where dancing takes a back seat to disfigurement — and sometimes to death
February 21, 2000
Globe and Mail
By Nicole Veash
Rio de Janeiro -- His body was covered in blood, urine and feces. Someone had stamped a footprint onto his face leaving him disfigured, swollen almost beyond recognition. Then she saw his right eye, or what remained of it, hanging from its socket.
In spite of his injuries, Eva recognized her 15-year-old son immediately. And so she asked: "Are you alive?" Julio Miranda Cavalcante nodded a reply, his last response to any question. Days later he was dead -- three months short of his 16th birthday - another victim of the funk balls.
Julio is not alone. Others have died on the dance floor: Kleber Jose Basilio, 18, killed Feb. 24, 1997; Flavio Rodrigues de Oliveira, 19, killed April 27, 1998; Roberto Alail Gomes Soares, 17, killed July 6, 1998; Bruno Lopes Escobar, 16, killed Sept. 25, 1999.
Indeed, police believe at least 60 young Brazilians have lost their lives in funk balls; dozens more have sustained serious injuries. Some have been paralyzed, some blinded.
Funk balls look like ordinary nightclubs with one big difference: They play music that incites the crowd to bloodshed. Funk's anger is contained not only in lyrics of murder and revenge but wrapped up in the very sound of the music, in a rhythm that chimes with the speed of a fist smashing into an enemy's flesh.
And despite many tales of death, 200,000 teenagers from the slums of Rio deJaneiro ensure that the funk-balls phenomenon -- there are 60 on Rio's periphery -- just keeps growing, although opposition is finally beginning to grow.
A rival gang beat Julio at the Country Club, a notorious ball on the outskirts of the city. In the early hours of one Sunday morning, when the dance floor had cleared, friends found him slumped in a corner. They took him to hospital but the staff didn't treat him, instead putting him on a trolley out of their way.
Hours later, when Eva arrived, Julio's wounds were already brown and congealing. She asked for help but it was too late. Her son died in the small hours of Wednesday morning. He was buried two days later in his football shirt. It's Friday night. In a dusty back street -- far from Copacabana's tourist trap -- is the satellite settlement of Duque de Caxias. It's a poor, grey town, a world away from Rio's colourful beach life. On its fringes, past the discount shops and street markets stacked high with tropical fruit and rails of cheap clothes, is a squat, dirty-white building. Painted in blue on the side of a wall are the words: "Funk Ball every Saturday."
Two rival groups have already begun to gather outside: Side A and Side B. They are dressed in their best clothes: The girls in tiny hot pants and tight, revealing tops; the boys in Nike and Adidas Bermuda shorts, gold chains hanging from bare chests and bleached white hair cropped to the scalp.
By midnight, perhaps 1,000 people are waiting. One of the Side A crowd is Andre, a thin young man with bleached hair and sharp cheekbones. He is awaiting the arrival of a bus -- laid on by the funk ball's promoters -- bringing his gang from the Dicke da Vila Alizira slum to the club.
When they arrive, Andre greets his people: kissing the girls and giving the boys a reassuring hug. Some proudly bear injuries from previous balls - eye patches, half-healed cuts, arms in slings. Others are ready for the evening's fight with mouth guards and plasters stretched over their noses to stop them from choking on congealed blood.
The crowd joins the disorderly Side A queue at the entrance. After paying their 7.50 reals ($6) to the bottle-blonde sitting in the tiny ticket booth, they file past a pack of bouncers who body-search each person for weapons.
Andre guides his people to the left corner of the club, where the walls are smeared brown with blood from previous fights.
Side A and Side B gather at opposite ends of the hangar-sized venue, leaving a gap of around two metres in the centre -- they call this the Corridor of Death. And it is here that the funk ball turns from being just another nightclub into a place of combat and bloodshed.
The DJ stops playing bad remixes of Dire Straits and the Back Street Boys, and puts on the first funk record of the evening. The two crowds roar with approval. Underage girls, dancing for groups of guys, simulate sex acts by thrusting their hips and suggestively sucking on their fingers.
This is Brazilian music and sounds nothing like seventies funk, despite sharing the same name. Produced locally and on a limited budget, it lacks the polish of Western music but has a raw, infectious vigour. A mish-mash of influences, it uses the electronic beat of late eighties pop, with bass thuds and slithers of techno. An off-key aggressive rap is often sung live.
Tubarao, whose name means "shark" in Portuguese, says a good funk DJ is able to manipulate the clubbers' feelings of anger.
"A DJ gets to know his crowd because we play the same balls every weekend, so we understand the rhythm of their fighting," he explains. "I take great pride in controlling my crowd. If I see they want blood, I'll put on a fast funk tune. But if they need cooling, then I'll soothe them with something for the girls."
The gangs even have their own chants, recorded by their leaders on equipment provided by the funk-ball promoters. Intensely personal, they talk about revenge, poverty and the deaths of enemies.
"The more you listen to funk," says Andre, "the more you . . . love it. It has a hard, intense sound. Great for fighting. It's our own music, about our people, about death and drugs. The things we know."
Funk-ball fights are not free-for-alls. At a DJ's call for mortal kombat --after the notoriously violent computer game -- the rival sides try to drag their enemies into the Corridor of Death and back into their own part of the club. Sometimes groups of 10 or 20 funkers cross this central aisle and invade the opposite side's territory. If an enemy -- or, as they are known in funk-ball slang, "German" -- is captured, they are beaten, often unconscious, unless rescued by a member of their own side.
Even girls fight. Once the sexy dance routines stop they wrestle one-on-one. They punch, snap each other's fingers and use their stiletto heels to mutilate the pretty face of a rival.
Andre has steered his crowd well away from the corridor. "There's no point being exposed right at the beginning," he says. "It's much better to save your energy for later, when things get nasty. Right now people are just playing around."
As he speaks, hundreds of people from Side B put white bandanas on their head and start forming a huge human snake. They begin winding their way around the club, in front of the stage, slowly veering toward Side A. In unison they punch the air and begin their rhythmic, aggressive chanting, demanding just one thing: a fight to the death.
A small group from Side A attempts to invade Side B. They try to break through the line of security men and into the Corridor of Death.
One small boy, perhaps no older than 12 or 13, is immediately punched square in the face by a bouncer twice his width and age. He falls back into a web of Side A arms.
Another is less lucky. Three security men, erupting with uncontrolled anger, drag him into the central aisle. They loop an orange plastic cord around his neck and yank him screaming and gasping for breath out of the ball and onto the street.
Andre admits that most funkers are wary of provoking the armed security guards. "You're not allowed to hit back. If you do, they'll kill you. That's the rule."
And then the DJ screams: "Attention Side A. Attention Side B. It's the time you've all been waiting for. Time for the mortal kombat."
Gone is that earlier feeling of celebration from the party in the street. Now Side A and Side B, divided only by the Corridor of Death, are squaring up to fight.
A group of young boys starts chanting: "Funk fills us with hate. We will invade. We will . . ." As they bundle across the corridor, the rest of their anthem is swallowed by the music. Bouncers rush, wooden truncheons in hand, to where the fight had erupted. They grab three funkers and drag them, shouting and screaming, out of the club. But the fuse had been lit and pockets of violence explode across the hall.
Nowhere is safe. Young bodies, glistening with sweat and fresh blood, start fighting next to me. One boy, lying on the floor near my feet, has his head stamped on by a rival. A bouncer pushes me toward a small door: "Get in there," he shouts. "You'll be out of the way." Rio's middle class has to take some responsibility for the funk balls.
In 1993, the city experienced a wave of violence on its famous golden white sands, when teenagers from the slums descended on the beach to fight against rivals. Gang violence in the underclass is nothing new, and Rio's wealthy usually turn a blind eye. But gang wars on the beach, in front of luxury apartments with sea views, was never going to be tolerated. After a wave of media hysteria, the police came down hard and the young, with their bitter divisions, were swept back into the shantytowns.
No one is quite sure which funk-ball promoter first allowed turf wars to music, but the clubs that resisted the market's new demand were soon forced out of business.
These children from the slums, ignored by society and living without hope, articulate their rage in the only way they know: with a fight for life.
According to Manoel Riberio, a Brazilian urban-studies expert who has studied the explosion of violence in the funk balls, the peer-group fights provide a release from the tedium of poverty.
"The funk balls are a way of venting frustration," he says. "It's widely accepted that marginalized people fight to release anger. It is a way of expressing feelings of social alienation.
"These people are not scared of aggression because they see violence around them all the time. What they need is regulated fights, with protective headgear and proper first-aid facilities. That way, their energy can be channelled instead of being pushed underground." Last July 4, 16-year-old Cleice Suzi da Silva Abel asked her mother to babysit her newborn son. She said she was going to a beach party, but she had other plans.
She arrived at 9:30 p.m. in one of the buses ferrying her crowd to that night's funk ball. Hand-in-hand with her boyfriend Hobson, the leader of the group, she walked into the Country Club. At 5 the next morning, friends found her in the club toilets. She was in a coma, covered in urine, with clumps of hair missing from her head. They took Cleice to hospital, where she was diagnosed as having a broken shoulder blade, fractured skull and a clot on the brain.
She stayed in a coma for 15 days. Her mother even contemplated switching off the life-support machine, but somehow Cleice pulled through.
In testimony to police, she recalled her scant memories of the evening. "The security guards were whipping our legs, which made everyone really angry. I was on Side A and suddenly Side B invaded us. Someone pulled my hair and dragged me across the Corridor of Death. I don't really remember anything after that."
Cleice now suffers from permanent neurological problems. She is paralyzed down her right side and can no longer hold her baby son. Rio is a notoriously violent city, perhaps the most dangerous in all of Brazil. Deaths in the slums, where drug trafficking is rife, are so commonplace that they don't even merit a couple of lines in the local newspaper.
Throughout 1997 and 1998, police believe dozens of teenagers were murdered in the funk balls, but their bodies have never been found. A bouncer turned police informant has claimed that promoters instructed staff to dump the corpses in the city's sewers and garbage dumps.
The murders were low on the police priority list, partly because the dead are poor and partly because the police themselves are implicitly responsible for the deaths. In Brazil, corruption in public life is endemic, and Rio's state prosecutors accept that certain officers are bribed by promoters. So the few bodies that did turn up were given only cursory examination.
But Julio Miranda Cavalcante was one dead teenager too many, and when hundreds of mourners from the slums turned up at his funeral, the media and middle class were forced to respond, taking the authorities to task and demanding that the funk balls be closed down.
In March, 1999, Detective Cristina Lomba Pereira was put in charge of Julio's case.
Her office, with its exposed electrical wiring and peeling plaster, is in a rundown suburb an hour's drive from the heart of Rio. She has few resources of modern policing at her disposal: no bullet-proof vest, no computer and no neat filing system. Not even a telephone.
So far, Det. Pereira has visited around half of Rio's funk balls. "They aren't a secret," she says, fiddling with her 9 mm handgun. "It isn't difficult actually going to the balls because the venues are advertised in newspapers. The promoters usually list them in the classified section, giving the venue and the DJ lineup.
"But obviously funkers don't like talking to police officers. It's a closed scene and strangers stick out. These youngsters are devoted to funk balls. They treat the promoters like royalty despite the deaths of friends, and always deny that violence actually occurs inside the club. So it wasn't until Cleice's testimony in July that I had a first-hand account of what was actually happening.
"Fortunately the investigation was active so I was able to persuade Cleice to speak. If I hadn't been working on Julio's case, she wouldn't have given evidence. I only persuaded her because I said she could stop more people being killed."
Yet it wasn't until December that the funk-ball promoters started feeling the heat. And despite the mounting evidence, they still continued to deny allegations of organized violence. Romulo Costa is a short, slightly tubby man. He has a round, olive-skinned face with sharp, quiet eyes and a goatee beard. Despite being 46 years old, he has cut his hair teenage style: long at the base of the neck with little rat tails.
Among the funking crowd, Romulo Costa is an immensely popular man. He owns Rio's largest chain of funk balls, which are run under the brand name Furacao 2000 -- or Tornado 2000. Each weekend, thousands of young funkers travel to one of his regular nights held in half a dozen clubs across the city.
Since the start of the police investigation into the funk-ball deaths, Mr. Costa has been regarded as a key man to put behind bars. Police insist that if he is imprisoned, the funk-balls phenomenon will cease to exist.
He has been hauled into Det. Pereira's police station for questioning on several occasions. Once he was detained for over a week, but later released without charge.
In person, Mr. Costa does not live up to his bogeyman image. He comes across as a family man, as someone with an almost benevolent concern for the poor teenagers who inhabit his funk balls.
But beyond the bland denials of "I don't promote violence" or "my balls are about peace and music" -- which are usually made on the steps of the police station -- Mr. Costa says he is rarely given the chance to explain his association with funk.
"People never ask why I promote funk," he says. "They just assume that I enjoy violence. Well, I don't. I'm from the favelas [slums] myself. I've lived in a house without water, in a place where there was nothing to do all day. I've had jobs without prospects which didn't pay me enough to get by on. So I know all about poverty."
This is one of the reasons Costa is so popular among the teenage funkers -- he's the boy from the slums made good. He has a family, a beautiful, young wife and the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle.
As a teenager he carried records for the DJs and was eventually employed full-time by a former owner of Furacao 2000. He worked his way up the ranks before taking over the business. He even met his wife, Veronica, on the funk-ball dance floor.
Over the years, he has built an empire and now has a stable of DJs who, apart from playing live sets, regularly release funk compilation CDs.
He is devoted to funk music, both as a way of making money and, it seems, as a form of self-expression for the poor. And each time he is summoned to the police station, a huge crowd of banner-waving kids accompanies him,
pleading: "Don't close our balls."
Mr. Costa has come under increasing fire. His neighbours in the notoriously nouveau-riche district of Barra da Tijuca -- about 20 minutes drive from Copacabana Beach -- have exerted pressure on his family to leave their condominium. And parents at his two children's private school have successfully petitioned the head teacher to force the family to leave.
"People are scared of me. They think I am dangerous because I come from the favela and because I have money.
"That's why funk is discriminated against. It is the music of the poor. If you went into any house in the favela you would hear funk playing.
"Of course we get some violence at the balls, but it isn't the organized violence that you read about. Violence is normal when people are repressed and discriminated against. That's why these fights occur. Fighting is an everyday part of our lives." "You've got to understand," Andre bursts out suddenly, "that certain things are important to funkers. First you've got to fight without fear because it's the only way to win respect. I was scared at the beginning but after that first punch in the face I lost my fear.
"Second, you need the right clothes. Then you have to have a girl with a big arse. But most important of all, you need a good crowd, one that'll back you up.
"A funker has got to have his trophies. A rival's blood is a trophy and so are his clothes. But if I see my own blood, all I can think about is revenge.
"I remember once stamping on a German's head because he'd made me bleed. His girl was screaming and screaming at me to stop. But that only made me stamp harder."
He continues: "I'm nearly 20 and that's old for a funker. Soon someone else will take over as leader because God gave me a warning to quit.
"It was 3 o'clock one morning a couple of months ago. I'd been fighting all night but still wanted more. The DJ played our chant and that made me go again.
"I told my friends I was going to fight. It was my day, everything had been going really well and I had the devil inside me.
"I went alone. I dropped two Germans and then one of Crowd B came and slashed me across my arm with a razor. I could see right through to my bones.
"I was unlucky. Most of the time we leave the weapons in the bus for later because you can't get them inside the ball, but somehow this [guy] managed to get a blade past security. I saw death in front of me that night."
Andre can no longer fully stretch his arm. And some nights, when the city's normally balmy temperature drops, he gets a searing pain around the bones.
This is just one of many funk-ball scars he will carry for the rest of his life.
He bristles at the memory and turns to his crowd for reassurance. They start to chant: "We are the terror possessed by hatred. We will invade Side B and take the Germans. We want blood. We want slaughter. We want bodies on the floor."