My pain doesn’t make the papers
In 2008, when I was a photographer for the newspaper O Dia, I went to live undercover in a favela for a report on the drug militias. I was discovered, humiliated, and tortured. I lost my wife, my children, my friends, my house, Rio, the sun, the beach, soccer, everything.Nilton Claudino
Translated by Flora Thomson-Deveaux
I‘m no criminal, but I’m afraid of the police. I walk disguised through the streets of a distant, unfamiliar city because I have reason to believe that my life is in danger. I’m on edge. I can barely sleep. In a medical report, my psychologist described my mental state as follows: “Sensorineural agitation; mental fixation on images he cannot rid himself of and which take over his mind.”
Often I find myself crying alone. I have nightmares. I remember that when I was kneeling, hooded and handcuffed, one of my torturers said in my ear: “Your life will never be the same again.” He was right.
Now and then, I still hear – as if it were actually playing – the angelic music that the used to play. The sound drags me back to that darkness, when I was hooded and still had no idea what would happen to me. I heard the music (composed to be pleasant-sounding) coming from a stereo a few yards away. There were flutes playing, soft and peaceful. Liturgy associates music like that with angels. Over the flutes, a pastor’s voice preached in tones of fire and brimstone: “The man with a knife at your throat is going to kill you. Repent for your sins and give up your soul to God.”
The message lasted a few minutes. There was a pause, and then the recording started again, the flutes and the pastor’s voice, as if it were a CD set on automatic repeat. This was the easy part of the tortures I would suffer. Three years later I still often wake with a start in the middle of the night, that melody playing in my head.
I started in journalism in 1977, working as a courier at the Rio branch of Veja Magazine. Eventually I was promoted to producer at the magazine, where I did research and sent photographers’ material to the headquarters in São Paulo. Then I transferred to the sports magazine Placar. I spent hours in the darkroom, learning all the techniques I could. I was a keen student, especially of Ricardo Chaves, Rodolfo Machado and J.B. Scalco (Scalco being one of the best sports photographers I’ve ever met).
One weekend, when no other photographers were available, I wielded a professional camera for the first time at a Campeonato Brasileiro game. Such was my introduction to the career that I would stay in for the rest of my life. It’s funny to think that I became a photographer because of soccer; when I was much younger, I dreamed of being a soccer pro and even played a bit in Madureira.
I would hang around Arthur Antunes Coimbra’s house out in the Zona Norte, where Zico and I played pick-up games on dirt fields. Those games fed my dreams of following in the footsteps of the already-famous striker, who’s still the best player I’ve ever seen on the field. But a knee injury would halt my trajectory, which had been uncertain ever since I’d left home to try my luck in Rio de Janeiro. I was born between Christmas and New Year’s in 1958, in Corumbá; I grew up amongst ten siblings in Mato Grosso, studied at a Catholic high school and thought that I’d end up following some religious path. And, in a way, being a photojournalist required a profession of faith.
In 1990, I started work at the Jornal do Brasil, where I won professional recognition and international awards. In 1992, I went to the newspaper O Dia, where I was photography editor for 6 years. I won an honorable mention from the Vladimir Herzog Prize for my photo “In the View of the Law.” The photo was taken when I lived in the Maré favela for two weeks with the reporter Aloísio Freire, investigating the “Blue Command,” a group of military policemen-turned-vigilantes who committed atrocities against favela-dwellers and bandidos alike.
Journalism would put me in danger once again, in Capitán Bado in Paraguay. Accompanied by a guide, I’d gone to a massive marijuana plantation and started snapping pictures with a miniature camera when I saw that the traffickers were coming. I stuffed the camerain my underwear and picked up an enormous pumpkin; I told the traffickers I was stealing to feed myself. With AR-15 rifles pointed at me and the Guarani-speaking guide, we spent a good long while negotiating our release. I was shaken, but that didn’t keep me from taking on another dangerous assignment: I spent 28 days traveling on an investigation into the smuggling of cocaine into Brazil from Peru and Bolivia. What stuck with me most was the poverty of the place, the children working as slave laborers on the coca plantations.
I was pushed into the arms of investigative journalism by the reporter Tim Lopes, a friend and colleague from Placar, JB, O Dia, and the Globo network. Tim was murdered by drug traffickers in the Complexo do Alemão while he was putting together a piece on open-air drug dealing in a favela; he was also investigating the issue of the sexual exploitation of minors in baile funk parties.
I had started to ask around, along with the reporters Alexandre Medeiros and Marcos Tristão, hoping to find clues that might lead us to Tim. One day I was approached by someone in the favela. He came up from behind and didn’t reveal his face. “Go up through the Complexo do Alemão,” he said. “There’s a place called Pedra do Sapo. Go dig under the bamboo. That’s where you’ll find the body.” I couldn’t turn my head to look. If I did, I could be killed.
The colonel Venâncio Moura – then a commander in the BOPE, the Military Police’s elite squad – went to check out the tip. I went up with the squad, with the reporter Albeniza Garcia at my side. A group of firefighters did the digging. By the second shovelful, they were turning up bones, and then the Globo ID plaque on his camera. It was incredibly hard, but I had to photograph the whole thing. We all started crying. It was the remains of our friend Tim Lopes. I always carry the book of Salms with me, and I began reading number 23 in an attempt to leaven my despair: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
In early 2008, I was called in by Alexandre Freeland, the managing editor of O Dia, for acovert mission: investigating a militia group (comprising military and civil policemen, firefighters, and prison officials) which was active in Jardim Batan, a favela in the heart of Realengo in the Zona Oeste.
Batan was once a sizeable cattle farm; it takes its name from a local tree, the ubatã or chibatã. The favela had seen many violent clashes between rival criminal factions struggling to control the drug traffic in the area. Then, in 2007, milicianos got together and drove the traffickers out. Soon they took over the jitneys and the sale of gas and pirated cable TV and started charging the residents a “security fee”.
In order to investigate the situation, I managed to rent a house in Batan with a reporter from O Dia and a driver from the newspaper. We arrived on the morning of May 1st, 2008. We went straight to the closest bakery (which was owned by our landlord), ate breakfast, got the key to the place, and went to get settled in.
It was a three-story house, and we lived on the third floor. We discovered that the place was completely empty, and got in touch with residents who helped us find furniture. Our first-floor neighbor introduced us to other people who lived nearby, and we managed to buy a used TV. We bought sleeping pads and groceries at the market in Bangu.
Whenever I met locals I said I was from Pantanal and that I was waiting to be called up to work in Macaé as a contractor for Petrobras. This helped me get in with people. Unemployment isn’t tolerated in Batan; the milicianos don’t like to have so-called “bums” hanging around. I started winning the neighbors’ trust. I became friends with the first-floor neighbor, who, like the driver from the newspaper, had grown up in the neighborhood. I threw a barbecue on the corner by the house, hoping to get closer to him.
I was posing as the reporter’s husband. We said that she was an evangelical Christian from Minas Gerais, I was a recovering alcoholic and our marriage had helped me get sober. She started going to a nearby church. That’s how we lived: I was a guy looking for a second chance, and she found work as a cook. Everyone bought it, which allowed us to start (discreetly) conducting our research.
Every day we would send an update to the newspaper from an Internet café. Almost nobody at the paper knew about our assignment. So as not to raise suspicions, we told people that we were going on vacation.
Everything seemed to be going well. That year, Mother’s Day fell on May 11th. We had a lunch for ten of our good friends. My “wife from Minas” made feijão-tropeiro, a typical Minas dish. I made pasta and gave all the mothers roses in honor of the day. Every day we had more friends, it seemed – one of them gave us a couch as a present. Ordinary folks, just good people.
I’m a Christian. I pray every day. And I started getting the feeling that my guardian angel wanted to warn me about something. I told the reporter that I’d had visions that we were going to be found out. I’d been reading Habakkuk, one of the Old Testament prophets, and I had a vision that the milicianos broke down our door. “Whatever, it’ll be fine,” she said.
I had taken important photos in the favela. Some showed the punishment that the militia imposed on drug users. “Potheads” were painted white, marched through the streets, and forced to do manual labor for all the community to see. Others had to sit on hot bricks for hours. The militia boss, who everyone called 01 (Zero One) carried around a two-by-four he called Madalena. The residents were all terrified of Madalena, which he used in public beatings. Another truncheon was playfully dubbed “Human Rights.”
There were always prison guards and police roaming the streets, in and out of uniform. They’d drink in bars and leave the police car parked on the corner. I photographed that too. I’d never seen a female member of the Military Police in the militia before. The blond Batan policewoman who swaggered alongside all the rest was one of the surprises on that investigation.
I’d already made plans with a local jitney driver to take me to the bus station the next day. I thought that our work was almost done. I’d been taking all the material that I shot to our driver’s mother’s house, on the other side of the Avenida Brasil, never leaving anything in the house where we lived. I never used flash, either. Mine were photos taken with natural light, with slow shutter speed and high sensitivity so as to guarantee good image quality. I’d photographed many things: people moving around in the neighborhood, drunk police officers, public punishments, the carcasses of stolen cars left to rust on Army land, the secret gas storage facilities.
At 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 14th, we spoke with the managing editor. I always reported back to him. There was the possibility that a representative and a city councilor were involved with the militia, so we decided to stay on a bit longer. After all, we wanted incontrovertible proof.
Fifteen minutes after that phone call, they got me outside the pizzeria near our house. They started beating me right away. They screamed that they knew I was a journalist. They went to go get the reporter, who was up on the third floor. She put up a fight, and they dragged her down the stairs with blows and kicks. I got the worst of it, though, because I’d won the milicianos’ trust. I’d had beers with them while I was fishing for information. They were furious that we’d deceived them for two weeks.
We were handcuffed, our heads covered with black hoods, and we were stuffed into the backseat of a car. We drove a couple minutes to the place where we would be held. Our kidnappers avoided Avenida Brasil, taking us down bumpy back roads. On the way, they kept on beating us. One of them played Russian roulette with a revolver to my head. I was sure that we were going to be killed. When we arrived, I saw that the house where they were going to keep us appeared to be under construction. There was gravel under my feet. “You’re gonna die,” they kept saying, “you’re gonna die!”
“01”, the boss, sat down across from me. I tried to negotiate. “I have influence at the newspaper,” I said. “Let’s forget about the beatings. You let us go, and we’ll say no more about it. Better not to kill journalists – just look at Tim Lopes. He was a good friend of mine, like a brother to me.”
“Seems like the problem’s in the family, then,” said Zero One. “You’re going to die, but you should know that you were given up by friends of yours from the newspaper. Let me prove it – in your cubicle at work you have a picture of one of your two kids playing guitar. Nice kids. You live in Zona Sul.” He recited my address.
I froze, and he went on. “You’re a bunch of fuckheads. Your friends snitched on you. We have informants all over the media.”
Then he gave an order. “Get the cameraman.” Our torture was filmed. Someday, someone will see the footage of what we underwent. They made a point of recording what they did to us.
Most of the time, my face was covered with a hood. But I knew that there were police officers all around. I felt the kicks from their boots. Zero One left. I could hear cows mooing, far off. Then the flute started, and the pastor’s voice started preaching: “The man with a knife to your throat is going to kill you. Repent for your sins and give up your soul to God.” For dramatic effect, every time the recording played, someone put a knife to my throat.
Between torture sessions, we had five “tribunals,” where the milicianos got together and decided what our fate would be. Five times they sentenced us to death. They were going to take us over to the Fumacê favela, burn our bodies, and pin it on drug dealers. They talked about taking us to Batan and having us publicly stoned as traitors. There’s no doubt in my mind that if they gave the order, the terror-stricken residents would have stoned us to death.
Then the one they called “the Colonel” showed up. They got our email passwords and read all the messages we’d sent to the newspaper. I talked about my photographs, describing them in detail; the reporter contextualized the information she’d been collecting. All told, the Colonel decided that we could live. But they kept on beating us. The milicianos kept talking about another boss, someone they called “Commander.”
During the torture, I had the reporter and the driver at my side. It was a dark room, lit only by cell phone screens (and then only so we could witness each other’s suffering). The driver begged me to shoo off the scorpions crawling on his back. I couldn’t help him. We heard police officers’ footsteps. They took our hoodsoff and replaced them with plastic bags, like the ones you get at the supermarket, and then they used them to suffocate us. When I looked under the plastic, I could see their uniforms.
The reporter recognized the voice of a city councilman, the son of a state representative. And he recognized her. The beatings started up again. The politician really laid into me. He wanted to know what I was doing in the Zona Oeste. He asked if I loved my kids or not. They were all wearing ski masks. At one point I thought I had died, and I felt myself rising up to heaven. But it wasn’t my time yet. I had to come back to tell this story. God made me come back.
More police cars were pulling up all the time. After the beatings, they gave us electric shocks. They used a sort of instrument shaped like a pizza, with a pipe in the middle. I was stripped and shocked below the waist and on my feet. I can’t, I shouldn’t, I don’t want to go into the details of the brutality and the humiliations that we suffered.
We were taken to the driver’s parents’ house so that the milicianos could pick up the memory cards and the other photographic material stashed there. I had never left my camera in the favela; I always kept it hidden nearby so that it wouldn’t compromise our security. We arrived in a convoy, in the middle of the night.
The driver’s parents fled the house. The milicianos asked me to teach them how to work a camera, and they took portraits of us. I taught them how to adjust the ISO, changing the camera’s sensitivity to light. They photographed me like the military police takes mug shots of , lifting my chin so I couldn’t hang my head. They took our photos as a trophy, and that’s why I still can’t go back to Rio.
They let us go at 4:30 that morning, on the Avenida Brasil, after over seven hours of barbarity and torture. The driver’s father was at the wheel of the car that took us out of the favela. I wanted to go to an army barracks, but I wanted to talk to the heads of the newspaper first.
By the time we got to Estação Leopoldina, just off the Avenida Brasil, we started debating what to do next. The reporter said that the torturers had called her by a nickname that only people from work knew. Knowing we’d been betrayed, we felt vulnerable. We went to my house. “Didn’t I tell you this was going to happen?” my wife said. I hugged my son, who’d just woken up. It was almost 6 in the morning. We were barefoot, bleeding, and broken. We got cleaned up at my house. My son went off to school. The worst torture yet had already begun: my family and I would live in fear for the rest of our lives.
The managing editor and an executive editor came over to the house. They called the owner of the paper, Gigi Carvalho (daughter of the old O Dia head, Ary Carvalho), who would sell the newspaper to a Portuguese company eighteen months later. They spoke with the state Secretary of Security, José Mariano Beltrame.
Strangely enough, on the morning of our release, I wasn’t taken in for a forensic examination. They took me to the Copa D’Or Hospital, where, even stranger, I was instructed to say that I’d fallen from a horse. I couldn’t say that I’d been tortured. At home, I saw that there were policemen – or guys who looked like policemen – hanging out by the door. We were being watched.
We went on the run. First, my wife, my kids and I went to the mountains in the interior of the state. In the Sunday edition on June 1st, two weeks after we’d fallen into the hands of the militia, the newspaper finally broke the story. “TORTURE – Zona Oeste Militia Kidnap and Beat O Dia Reporter, Photographer, and Driver,” read the headline.
By then, I was in a Marine barracks, far away from everything. I got a call saying that there were Marines amongst the Rio milicianos, and my life was in danger. I still don’t know how they found me there.
Then, my teenage niece was almost kidnapped. They tried to get her as she was leaving school; she was only saved because a 70-year-old man managed to wrest her from the grasp of her kidnappers. God only knows where he found the strength. My niece is still traumatized. They called up her mother and said it was “a real coincidence” that I’d skipped town at the same time as the kidnapping attempt. They said they’d never let me go. They were going to kill me.
Brazil wasn’t safe for me anymore. I fled to Bolivia, hiding out in a city of 20,000 people near Santa Cruz. After the first few weeks I started missing my family. They were in a city on the southern coast of Brazil, and I went to meet them there, at a hotel on the beach.
My wife and children wouldn’t speak with me. Worst of all was seeing how much they were suffering. I wanted to kill myself, throw myself from the 20th floor of the hotel. I was consumed by despair. The only one who understood me, who brought me comfort, was my dog Sávio. And as if everything else weren’t enough, Sávio died.
I abandoned my family and disappeared for 15 days. I came back to get my things. I told them that I’d let them live in peace, which would only be possible if I weren’t around.
I moved far away. I suffer alone. I can’t talk with my friends from Rio; I never saw them again. Since someone at the paper gave me up, I can’t speak with anyone from O Dia. The Ministry of Justice said that it might be best for me to take on an alternate identity. (I was never issued one.)
In Rio there was an investigation, and the milicianos’ identities were revealed. Zero One was the civil policeman Odinei Fernando da Silva, also head of a paramilitary group called “Eagle.” Zero Two was Davi Liberato de Araújo, a convict roaming free thanks to the prison guards in the militia. The two were sentenced to 31 years in prison, but their sentence was recently reduced to 20. The Batan favela is in the process of being pacified.
Nothing happened to the city councilman or the state representative whose voices my colleague recognized. They denied all involvement with the militia and were never punished. This July, the state representative appeared in a photo alongside the governor of the state of Rio at the inauguration of the new Police Pacification Unit, not far from where we were tortured.
Some of the bandidos are in jail, but it seems like I’m the criminal. I can only imagine that they hate me more with every day they spend in prison. I can only imagine how many milicianos lost money when the Batan ring was broken up, and how many of them want my head for that.
It’s been hard to take back my life. I’m seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and I take handfuls of pills. I hardly see my children, who are growing up out of my sight. I have a grandson who I barely know. I never heard anything about the other reporter and the driver; they’ve vanished. I’ve forgotten my friends. I need to look at photos to remember the faces of the people I love. But I remember perfectly those who tortured me.
Was it worth it? This was the job I chose. But what hurts the most is that we were turned in by our coworkers. I’d thought I had no enemies.
I didn’t take photos while I was on the run, and I’ve only started again recently. I used to send aid to some kids in the Rocinha favela – a family with 9 children. In the festival of Nossa Senhora Aparecida, in Pantanal, I would hand out presents to kids. Once a month I helped out at a soup kitchen. I don’t do any of that anymore.
I lost Rio, the beaches, the sun, soccer, the pleasure of drinking a beer with my friends. Occasionally someone’ll say to me that it’s all over. Over for who? Not for me. The torture never stops. All because of those sons of bitches.
Nilton Claudino era fotógrafo do jornal carioca O Dia até ser sequestrado pela milícia.