Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is a glittering affair that attracts tourists from all over the world. There is, however, a murky and sometimes violent underbelly to the celebrations that recently came under the spotlight after the murder of a top samba school official.
One evening last month, Marcello da Cunha Freire was leaving his office in Rio’s Vila Isabel neighborhood when a car pulled up next to him.
“I was here just beside where it happened,” says a witness who doesn’t want to give her name for fear of reprisals. “I suddenly heard gunfire. I shut the door and hid and after a few minutes I heard at least six more shots. There was a lot of confusion, people shouting.”
According to police, unknown assailants in a car opened fire on Freire, hitting him with three bullets. He was taken to hospital where he later died.
The murder could have just been another one of the many that happen in Rio every week, but it made headlines because Freire was the vice president of one of the most prominent samba schools in the city, Salgueiro.
His isn’t the first death of someone linked to the school. In 2007, the group’s then-vice chairman was killed in an early morning attack. Another group member was murdered in 2004.
On a recent night in the neighborhood from which the club gets its name, the beat of samba drums blares from trucks. Thousands of Salgueiro residents — who have been practicing for months — are running through their routines on the street. Women in high-cut sparkly costumes dance next to portly men and young children.
This is a full street rehearsal, but it feels like a block party — vendors sell beer and snacks while people mill around chatting and snapping pictures.
Still, it’s a serious business. Every year, the 12 top-tier samba schools are locked in a fierce competition to be crowned Carnival kings.
Among the onlookers is Rafael Brandon, a self-proclaimed samba school fanatic. For many Brazilians, the samba schools function almost like soccer clubs: They have their colors, their flags, their jerseys and their fans.
Brandon says the talk among the fans is all about the murder. The police are investigating but speculation is running rife.
The Crime Bosses Who Created Today’s Carnival
To understand the Rio samba schools, you have to understand where the schools come from — poor, marginal communities, mostly in the favelas, or shantytowns, of the city. The schools’ annual displays cost millions of dollars — a combustible mix of money and poverty, says Aydano Motta, a journalist and author who has written extensively about Rio’s samba schools.
“No one cares about these communities and the schools outside of Carnival,” Motta says. “The communities lack sanitation, infrastructure … and there is a criminal underworld that operates there.”
It’s alleged that the criminal world actually partially finances many of the schools, mainly through something called jogo do bicho, or “the animal game.” It’s a lottery- type scheme that is as popular as it is illegal. The big leaders, called bicheiros, are largely credited with making Rio’s Carnival the global phenomenon it is today.
“The bicheiros were called ‘patrons,’ they perceived the value of the Carnival product,” says Motta. “There was one in particular who was smarter than all of them and who set up the system as it stands today.”
His name was Castor de Andrade and he was — until his death in the 1990s — the king of the bicheiros and the grand patron of the samba schools. Motta calls him a visionary who is seen as both devil and savior by the communities in Rio. Motta says de Andrade used his gambling empire to make Carnival a multimillion-dollar event, but cemented the link between the celebrations — and the schools — with criminal activity.
Today, many of the schools are still allegedly financed by the bicheiros. Several years ago, the Mangueira school was being investigated for links to drug kingpins, among other samba school scandals and deaths over the years.
Motta says that while the world looks away when it’s not Carnival time, crime bosses continue to lend support. That support, though, comes at a cost.
Amid Police Investigation, Carnival Must Go On
Local press reported that in 2012, as a result of a fight between rival bicheiros, the current Salgueiro chair, Regina Celi, began receiving death threats.
NPR was able to interview Regina Celi at the Salgueiro school. Dressed in a sequined turquoise dress, she was flanked by three bodyguards and didn’t want any pictures taken.
The only female head of a samba school, Celi said that in the male-dominated world, “you have to inspire respect.” But when she was asked about the death of her former vice president, Celi cut the interview short.
“I have nothing to do with it, neither does the school,” she said. “It’s a police affair now.”
The police told NPR they are investigating the case and would not say if they have any leads. Freire was also an official in a powerful soccer club, and some say his death may not be linked to samba at all.
Since few murders are ever solved in Brazil, it’s unlikely the real reason for Freire’s death will be made public.
Back on the streets in front of the Salguiero samba school, a drummer practices as the countdown to Carnival continues.
Victor Nascimiento works at the Salgueiro school and says the murder took everyone by surprise.
“The Marcello de Cuna Freire that I knew was a man who was correct and honest,” Nascimiento says. “I never thought he would be caught up in a situation like that.”
In any case, Carnival is less than a month away, Nascimiento says.
“It’s sad,” he says, “but we can’t stop. We want to be the champions of Carnival and so we must go on.”
Catherine Osborn contributed to this report.