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Fatal attraction


Veash, N. (2000, March 19). "Fatal attraction: Teenagers from rio’s slums jam the discos to dance, to flirt, to fight—and sometimes to kill." The Boston Globe Magazine, pp. 11-32.


In a huge country such as Brazil (over 8.5 million square kilometers and about 170 million people), there are all kinds of young people: Indian, rural, wealthy and upper class, middle class, poor, homeless, religious and conservative, liberal, rebellious, and anti-social. Among the poor there are gangs.

This story is about the young people of "Rio’s underclass…mired in poverty for generations. Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics estimates the unemployment rate of Rio’s 10 million inhabitants to be 6%. But off the record, officials admit it is closer to 18%. The grinding poverty of this dense population is the main reason Rio de Janeiro is the most dangerous location in Brazil—witnessing 20 murders a day. Drugs and turf wars are a reality, and guns are readily obtainable. Growing up in this environment, young people become desensitized to violence and find it a primary means of gaining respect."

Young people of Rio’s slums gather "at some 30 unlicensed clubs—with names like Country Club, Tijuca Tenis Clube, and Clube Chaparral."

(Such a club) houses a ‘funk ball’ (a translation of the Portuguese bailles funk). It looks like a bad school disco, no fancy nightclub effects, just six giant speakers and banks of flashing red lights. But what it lacks in glamour, it makes up for with a charged atmosphere.

The dance hall fills with a 7-foot wide space down the middle of the hall. Those from one part of the city are opposed from those of a different section. The "violent competition" that is about to take place "is a statement about the superiority of one area over another and about ancient, long forgotten grudges. They are not about gaining turf. Rather funk balls are arenas for displaying prowess and, oddly enough, places of fun. Of entertainment."

A throbbing disco beat fills the air as the DJ puts on the first record and hundreds of people from side B gang put white bandanas on their heads to distinguish them from their foes and start to form a long human snake. They begin winding their way around the club and in front of the stage, close to the gap. In unison, they punch the air and begin a rhythmic, aggressive chanting that demands just one thing: the start of what they call Mortal Kombat. A fight to the death.

These violent dances began about 1996. Since then, some 60 young people have been killed, many more injured, some paralyzed and some blinded. Despite monitoring the door, some weapons have been brought in, but fists are the primary weapons.

Gang warfare had long taken place in the slums or favelas. Little notice was taken of it until the gangs took their fights down to what are called the "golden beaches" of tourist fame. A wave or protest brought police who swept the gangs off the beaches. The shantytown clubs had been operating as discos since the 1980s. They were now to become the scene of nocturnal violence. No one is sure what club owner first allowed fights, but "the idea caught on fast."

Located on the city’s periphery, the funk balls operate along similar, curiously disciplined lines. The teenagers are divided into two large crowds: Side A and Side B—depending on where they live. Each side contains gangs from around half a dozen different slums. The two sides are separated by the central gap, known as the Corridor of Death. And it is here that the funk ball changes from being just another disco into a place of combat.

DJ Tubarao or shark explains the inflammatory nature of the Brazilian music played:

‘A DJ gets to know his crowd because we play the same balls every weekend, so we understand the rhythm of their fighting. I take great pride in controlling my crowd. If I see they want blood, I’ll put in a fast funk tune, but if they need cooling, then I’ll soothe them with something for the girls.’

The fights are by no means free-for-alls. When his "music reaches a crescendo, the DJ will give a signal to begin. Only then do groups of 10 to 20 funkers cross the gap to drag their enemies—for some reason known as Germans—into the Corridor of Death and over onto their own side. Those captured are beaten, often unconscious, unless they get rescued."

Security guards also get involved. There to maintain order, they sometimes drag young men into the Corridor of Death and see what happens.

Some of the girls also fight. Once the sexy dance routines stop, they wrestle one-on-one. They punch, break rival’s fingers, and use their stiletto heels to mutilate the face of a rival.

Brazilian sociologist, Manoel Riberio has studied this violent phenomenon:

‘The funk balls are a way of venting frustration. It’s widely accepted that socially alienated people fight to release anger. What they need is regulated fights with protective headgear and proper first-aid facilities. That way their energy can be channeled instead of being pushed underground.’

It is said that club owners used to instruct their staff to dispose of dead bodies in the sewers and dumps of the city. But the brutal beating of a 16-year-old mother and the death of a 15-year-old boy who was ignored when brought to a hospital has awakened interest in seeing this violence curbed. Both of these victims had been left unconscious and covered with urine and feces as well as their own blood.

Detective Christina Lomba Pereira has been put in charge of an investigation which promised to bring some kinds of controls. She has found "peer pressure and a lack of other diversions" bringing thousands of kids to these clubs. Pereira puts responsibility on society for the excesses of these young people. But she would also hold them accountable for their own actions.

‘These youngsters are devoted to funk balls. They treat the promoters like royalty despite the deaths of their friends and always deny that violence actually occurs inside the club. I understand why they go…but that doesn’t mean we should continue to turn a blind eye and let more people die.’

Detective Pereira is working with a Prosecutor Lyra. He has received all available evidence but finds the case difficult to prosecute.

‘The real problem is that the crowd is easy to manipulate and exploit. And that’s what makes me real angry. We have teenagers dying every week because they are tricked into believing that funk-ball fighting is a macho thing that will get them accepted.’

‘Look, I’ve been gathering evidence on this case for nearly a year now. I’ve seen the devastation it brings to families who have lost their teenage sons in senseless acts of violence. But this is a crime where the guilty are never caught, because it’s almost impossible to find out who killed who. That’s why I’m trying to find a way to get the promoters and the DJs for stimulating violence. Of course, this will not carry as high a sentence as convicting someone for murder, but it is our only option. The only solution is to close down the funk balls.’

The key figure in promoting funk balls is Romulo Costa. He owns the largest chain of funk balls running under the name Furaco 2000 (furaco means tornado). His half dozen clubs attract thousands of young people each weekend and he is very popular with the fans. Police believe his arrest and imprisonment would bring the whole funk-ball frenzy to a halt, and he has been detained more than once.

In person, Costa does not live up to the bogeyman image the local media and police tend to portray. Short and slightly tubby, the 46-year-old has a round face, a goatee, and a teenager’s haircut; long at the base of the neck with little rat-tails. He comes across as a family man with an almost benevolent concern for the poor teenagers who inhabit his funk balls.

Here is Romulo Costa’s explanation and defense:

‘I don’t promote violence. My balls are about peace and music…People never ask why I promote funk. They assume that I enjoy violence. Well, I don’t. I’m from the favelas myself. I’ve lived in a house without water, in a place where there was nothing to do all day. I’ve had jobs without prospects which didn’t pay me enough to get by on. So I know all about poverty.’

As a teenager Costa worked at clubs "back when they were about music and dancing." He began by helping DJs until he became a DJ for the former owner of Furaco 2000. He met his wife on such a dance floor. He continues his description:

‘People are scared of me. They think I am dangerous because I come from the favela and because I have money. That’s why funk is discriminated against. It is the music of the poor. If you went into any house in the favela, you would hear funk playing. Of course we get some violence at the balls. But it isn’t the organized violence that you read about.’

His explanation seems incompatible with the blood-spattered walls, the mouthguards and protective nose plasters—as well as the eye patches, arms in slings, and healing cuts of the funkers or fighters.

Andre is the young leader of a group from the Dicke da Vila Alizira slum. His description sounds authentic.

‘Certain things are important to funkers. First, you’ve got to fight without fear, because it’s the only way to win respect. I was scared at the beginning, but after that first punch in the face, I lost my fear. Second, you need the right clothes. Then, you have to have a girl with a big a--. But most important of all, you need a good crowd, one that’ll back you up.’

‘A funker has got to have his trophies. A rival’s blood is a trophy and so are his clothes. But if I see my own blood, all I can think of is revenge. I remember once stamping on a German’s head because he made me bleed. His girl was screaming and screaming at me to stop. But that only made me stamp harder.’

Nicole Veash, author of this article goes on to describe the violence of the security men or bouncers—punching a boy of 12 or 13, "looping an orange plastic cord around another boy’s neck and dragging him off into the street." Girls can also suffer at the hands of bouncers.

Andre warns about security: " ‘You’re not allowed to hit back. If you do, they’ll kill you. That’s the rule.’ " Andre is also thinking personally about an end to all this:

‘I’m nearly 20 and that’s old for a funker. Soon, someone else will take over as leader, because God gave me a warning to quit. It was about 3 in the morning a couple of months ago. I’d been fighting all night but wanted more. The DJ played our chant, and that made me go again. I told my friends I was going to fight. It was my day, everything had been going really well, and I had the devil inside me.’

‘I went alone. I dropped two Germans, and then one of Crowd B came and slashed me across my arm with a razor. I could see right through to my bones. Most of the time, we leave the weapons in the bus for later because you can’t get them inside the ball, but somehow the German managed to get a blade past security. I saw death in front of me that night.’

Andre cannot yet straighten out his arm, and on very hot nights feels a searing pain around the bones.

‘It’s best not to talk about these things. Better not to think about them. You have to be optimistic or you’d never fight again, and tonight I want to fight.’

Then their chant begins:

‘We are the terror possessed by hatred.
We will invade Side B and take the Germans.
We want blood. We want slaughter.
We want bodies on the floor.’

And the DJ screams:

‘Attention, Side A. Attention Side B.
It’s the time you’ve all been waiting for.
Time for Mortal Kombat.’

Soon, this night’s violence has begun.



    • Why don’t journalists challenge someone like Romulo Costa to spend a night with them at a club like this? What would you ask or say to Costa if you met him?
    • Is it possible that other Brazilian teenagers could do so?
    • How important is poverty to this story and to the funk balls?
    • What do you learn about (teenage) violence from this violence?
    • What comparable activities (to funk balls) do you find in other youth cultures?
    • What possible good is there for some teenagers who attend funk balls?
    • How does the idea of respect play into this story? How important is it for us to be respected?

      1. For many years, and for many reasons, violence among teenagers worldwide has escalated.
      2. Family life, community situations, available weapons, the media and social climate including the techniques of the police and criminal justice system—are all factors that help explain youthful violence.
      3. Violence is certainly a symptom of emptiness, lack of healthy and legitimate prospects, hopelessness, and inner rage. We must always take note of the underlying causes as well as dealing with the actions produced by underlying frustration.
      4. Every teenager deserves respect and some prospects for the future. Poverty is a global problem which must be attacked at a community level as well as by national and global leaders and systems.
      Dean Borgman cCYS