Two facial expressions: one bursting with mirth, the other, frowning with sorrow. A homage to the muses of comedy and tragedy? A symbol of live theatre? No. Cop killer. The AK-47 is just a confirmation. The pistol tattooed on his calf, another. Three cards: Ace, Five and Seven (Art. 157: “Armed robbery”), yet another. I say he should have been dead by now. “I’m a living dead”, he agrees.
Yesterday, we raided a couple of barracos at a famous scenic favela close to the sea, in the South Zone (the elite zone) of Rio. One criminal was arrested and two suspects acquired for questioning. A boring mission accomplished, with no bullets shot. Time to go. No. We are told to wait, to hang out below a 40-degree heat, doing nothing but exposing ourselves needlessly to the curious passersby — and to the concealed criminals among them.
Mr. Living Dead was one of the latter.
He had a crumpled, oily face, with lifeless eyes deep in their sockets. A scar cut from near the left corner of his mouth to below his ear, as if someone had tried to make him look happier with a knife. A crooked nose and more scars around his eyes and eyebrows told me of a past of constant fights and beatings. The few teeth that survived were rotten. His skin was blotchy, clammy and sallow. His rough and blurred tattoos were a testament of a life in the joint: his body was now temporarily living outside; his soul, in eternal putrefaction and decay, still inside. The guy looked like an open war journal, stigmatized by a life in death, and by a death that refused to comply — instead, it mocked him.
And he mocked us.
He shows up at the backseat of a motorcycle. We need less than a glimpse to know that’s a vagabundo With hungry rifles, we tell him to get off the bike. Immediately, I see the tattoos — anger erupting from my eyes like lava from a volcano. No guns on him. We run him through the system: thirty five years of life, almost half of it inside bars. Drug-trafficking, theft, robbery, homicide, he’s done it all. But he owes nothing to the Law anymore, and he knows it. He had “payed his debt to society”. He is clean. We let him walk.
But not before I tell him I wish I’d met him in a different situation, one that included him shooting at me, and I responding. I think of all my dead friends. I see him killing them all.
Now, he gets furious. At first, he looks insulted. He tells me to do it, to kill him at once. His face distorts into a despairing mask, urging me to take him to an alley and just shoot him dead. I look at him with disgust and hate. I allow me a speck of pity too. And that’s when I understand.
He is not insulted.
He is asking for a favor.
1. Barraco: a slum dwelling.
2. Favela: a slum.
3. Vagabundo: a criminal, more frequently associated with those living and operating inside the favelas.