It’s often said the birth of a child changes your life. Covering the shooting deaths of children in recent months amid a wave of violence in Rio de Janeiro, I have realized from the pain of grieving parents that losing one probably changes you even more.
I began working as a photographer in Rio de Janeiro in 2004, and since then I have covered numerous deadly shootings including many innocent people caught in the crossfire.
Sometimes it happens when heavily armed drug traffickers battle over turf. Other times gangs shoot it out with elite units of military police — more like commando squads than what usually comes to mind when people think of police.
For all its natural beauty, the “Marvelous City,” as Rio is called, has long struggled with violence. It seems to possess a toxic mix of deep social and racial inequalities, lots of guns, drugs and gangs, slums built helter-skelter on hillsides that are essentially impossible to patrol and brutal tactics by police, who themselves are often targeted and killed.
Around 2008 I began noticing a drop in the shootings thanks to the implementation of Police Pacification Units, known by the Portuguese acronym UPP. Thousands of officers were stationed in many of the worst favelas, or slums, while the city coupled that enforcement with increased public services.
Brazil was booming economically, and the city had two global showcase events on the horizon that were incentives to make the program work: the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.