Day 343: Tim Lopes – The White Knight Of The Hidden Camera

originally published December 8, 2012

A few days ago, I joked about becoming a journalist. I suppose that, had I grown up with the right role model, that could have been my reality. Indiana Jones made archeology look cool. Jaws taught me that marine biology could be full of thrills and excitement. And TV’s Jessica Fletcher showed me that even being a senior citizen / mystery writer in the right small town could lead to hour upon hour of suspense and action.

If only I’d known about Tim Lopes.

Tim Lopes became the embodiment of the high-risk, balls-right-through-the-wall investigative reporter. His story reads like a legend. We can bemoan the death of traditional journalism all we want, but Tim Lopes is the only argument required to assert why this profession is necessary.

Born in 1950, Tim grew up in a favela around the perimeter of Rio de Janeiro. If you have ever seen the film City of God, you know what this is: Rio is surrounded by shantytowns which are so saturated with poverty and desperation, the police don’t even bother to make an appearance. Tim’s childhood slum was Mangueira, the heart of the birthplace of the samba.

Tim attended journalism school in Rio, and soon adopted a commitment to exposing the truth and upending injustice from within. In writing a piece about the brutal working conditions on Rio’s underground Metro, Tim didn’t interview a bunch of workers, nor did he follow them around for a few days. Tim got a legit job on one of the Metro construction sites, then wrote his piece based on the visceral experience of having lived it.

His focus was, of course, the crime and corruption he’d seen since birth. He ventured into broadcast journalism on the show Fantástico on the Globo network – a Brazilian Dateline-esque newsmagazine. Here he could use his style of immersive investigation to tell a story visually.

One story Tim sought to cover in 1995 was the increasing risk to regular citizens of Rio of being mugged or assaulted on the street. He tucked a concealed camera into a cooler, then set himself up on a Rio street, posing as a street vendor.

He hoped to score with some footage of a mugging, but it’s not likely he expected what came next. A group of teenagers, one of them holding a large knife, confronted a couple to mug them. A passing cab driver fired off a revolver to scare them off like any good citizen with no regard for discharging a firearm in public would do. The kid with the knife panicked and ran onto a busy street, where he was hit and killed by a bus. Tim’s hidden cameras all over the area captured the entire thing.

Tim’s primary targets were the drug traffickers and pushers who had control over the goings-on in the favelas all around Rio. He took his hidden camera to the streets in 2001 and captured dealers barking their wares to passers-by, offering out cocaine and even boasting about their prices.

This wasn’t shock journalism for shock journalism’s sake. Tim wasn’t after ratings – though I’m sure on some level he was happy with the job security of good ratings – the truth is, he wanted things to change. And they did.

Tim’s hidden-camera report, which also captured drug traffickers riding down the street with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, got a lot of attention. The police responded with action, and a number of dealers were hauled off the street and thrown behind bars. Tim was setting the bar high for journalism, truly embodying the notion that the press still has tremendous power in the 21st century.

This was Tim’s apartment. On June 2, 2002, he left here with plans to head out to Vila Cruzeiro, one of the nastier favelas around Rio, to check out a street party. He’d been tipped off that some of the drug traffickers were pushing child prostitution at these events, and Tim was going to do some digging.

With a concealed camera strapped to his waist, Tim headed out to capture some footage of drug dealers with heavy weaponry before heading to the party. He was approached by two members of the criminal gang who controlled the area. Tim tried to explain he was simply a reporter checking things out, but his face had become somewhat well-known in Brazil after the previous year’s successful undercover investigation.

In Tim’s line of work, notoriety and fame were the enemy. The two thugs laid a beating on Tim, then called their boss for their next move. They were instructed to shoot Tim in the foot or leg (we don’t know for sure), then throw him in the trunk for a drive.

The traffickers who had lost a chunk of income thanks to Tim’s work the year before had just found themselves a trophy.

They drove about three miles away to the Complexo do Alemão network of favelas. He was brought to the hill pictured above, and tied to a tree. At this point Tim was surrounded by some of the dealers he’d filmed the year before, their bosses, and even Elias Maluco, a local drug lord. A mock trial was held. Tim was found guilty, with the punishment of death.

What followed was… well, it was pretty graphic. Now might be the time for the squeamish among you to flip elsewhere, maybe read my article about the sexiest flower shop ever.

Tim was beaten again, this time by 20 people instead of two. His eyes were burned with a cigarette. Then, Elias Maluco used a sword to cut off Tim’s hands, his arms, and his legs. Then, while he was still alive, they crammed him into a bunch of tires, covered him in diesel and lit him on fire. In Brazilian gang-speak, this is called a ‘microwave’.

In total, nine of the 20 or so criminals at Tim’s “trial” were directly involved in his murder. And somebody ratted them out, because all nine were subsequently hunted down by the authorities. Three were killed by police, but the other six – including Maluco – were captured and sent to prison.

After his death, Tim Lopes became nationally known. The cause he had fought for and ultimately died for became the top priority for Rio’s police. They swooped in to Vila Cruzeiro, where Tim had planned to visit the night he died, as well as the Complexo do Alemão where he’d been killed, and took the areas over. The Brazilian military was stationed there for two years.

In June of this year, eight squads known as Pacifying Police Units were dropped into problem areas around Rio in order to maintain a strict authoritative presence – one that had been severely lacking beforehand. The drug lords and traffickers still have their foot in the door, but they’re being shoved perpetually outward.

Tim Lopes’ legacy runs pretty damn deep. He’s also a pretty great ad for the bad-assery of his profession.

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