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Brazil is dealing with rising violence, a lot of it related to the illegal drug trade. Most of the victims are young. In 2016 alone, more than 33,000 Brazilian teens and adults under the age of 30 were killed by homicide. NPR's Philip Reeves has been exploring crises facing Brazil's youth. Today he introduces us to two people in their 20s at the front line of the violence deep in the heart of the Amazon.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A celebration is underway. This is not a wedding or a big Brazilian soccer victory. The fireworks lighting up this city on this evening are because a powerful drug trafficker has just secured a victory in court. These festivities are a display of support for organized crime, says Thayna Dantas. She finds this profoundly worrying.
THAYNA DANTAS: (Through interpreter) It means we're surrounded by drug traffickers. We're surrounded by crime. So I think we should be worried.
REEVES: Dantas is a cop in the river port city of Manaus in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. She lives and works here on the east side in a neighborhood called Jorge Teixeira. Jorge Teixeira is a graffiti-scarred sprawl of concrete homes and down-at-heel stores and bars. Police call it a red area because of the number of drug-related homicides.
BRUNO ROMERO: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: "It's very dangerous here," says Bruno Romero, who's drinking coffee at a street market. "You often see murders in daylight," he says. Here, corpses are regularly dumped in the alleys and dirt lanes. Here, young Brazilians who grew up together view one another as a mortal threat. Thayna Dantas, the cop, moved to Jorge Teixeira when she was 12.
DANTAS: (Through interpreter) I rode a street bike, and most of my friends practically lived on the street just like me. For us, it was normal to spend the night out in the street riding our bikes.
REEVES: Most of those childhood friends are either dealing drugs or dead, says Dantas. Dantas is now 28. Here that's considered old. Dantas moved out of Jorge Teixeira a few years back but returned because her family's here. Being a cop working streets where she's so well-known is not easy, she says. Dantas sometimes runs into former friends who she knows are now tied up with drug gangs.
DANTAS: (Through interpreter) They look at me differently. It's not the same thing anymore. They don't see me as a friend anymore. They see me as the enemy. So for me, it's difficult.
REEVES: Dantas is in the military police, the front-line force that works the streets. Fifty-four of its officers have been killed in Manaus in just over a decade. Dantas handles those old friends of hers carefully.
DANTAS: (Through interpreter) I try not to go close to them. I don't look at them. I don't face them. You know, if I have to search them and they have illegal substances and I have to arrest them, I'll arrest them. But I try to stay away.
REEVES: The decision to become a cop after leaving high school wasn't easy for Dantas.
DANTAS: (Through interpreter) When I told my mom I wanted to join the police, she said, don't do it. She said I'd become a criminal. There are people who think the police are criminal. And there are some police who really are criminals.
REEVES: This makes it even harder for honest police to combat the drug gangs, says Dantas. Dantas constantly worries about her family's safety, especially her son, who's 2. She says when she's off duty, she stays home, even avoiding trips to the supermarket.
DANTAS: (Through interpreter) I've already been threatened several times. I've been followed by someone on a motorcycle. I've even been threatened by another policeman. I never got intimidated. But for a while now I've been thinking, if something happens to me, who will look after my son?
REEVES: Dantas says the police recently arrested a top drug trafficker near her mom's house.
DANTAS: (Through interpreter) And I started thinking, what if he thinks I was the one who turned him in or my family? And I'm scared they will do something to my family or to me.
REEVES: Ask Dantas what she feels about the drug gang leaders, and she replies with one word.
DANTAS: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: "Honestly, fear," she says.
MAURICIO HENRIQUE: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: Mauricio Henrique is 22. Fear is a constant part of his life, too.
HENRIQUE: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: Henrique says he spent about four years selling cocaine and other drugs on the streets of Jorge Teixeira for the neighborhood's most powerful criminal organization, the Familia do Norte. He was desperately poor, from a broken home and needed the money, he says. In Henrique's world, sudden, violent deaths are the norm.
HENRIQUE: (Through interpreter) I have friends losing their lives all the time.
REEVES: Henrique reads the local daily tabloid to find out about the latest victims. The front-page story on this day is about the discovery of a decapitated corpse. Henrique says he stopped dealing drugs because he doesn't want that to happen to him. Selling drugs turned him into a drug addict.
HENRIQUE: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: He lifts his shirt to show a huge scar on his stomach - the result of crashing his motorbike while high. Henrique's tired of risking his life.
HENRIQUE: (Through interpreter) In the world of crime, no one sleeps calmly at night. There are fights between different gang factions. Rivals can be sent to break into your house and kill you.
REEVES: Last year, Henrique was left badly shaken by an encounter with some cops. He says they discovered he was trying to sell a pistol on WhatsApp.
HENRIQUE: (Through interpreter) They asked me if I was a police killer or if I was selling the gun to a guy who's a police killer.
REEVES: Henrique says the cops bundled him into a vehicle.
HENRIQUE: (Through interpreter) They took me to a dark, abandoned place. I don't know where it was because they put a hood on me and I had to put my head down.
REEVES: Henrique says they beat and tortured him before letting him go. Nowadays he's trying to survive by doing odd jobs. He says he's no longer involved with the drug gang yet he respects its authority because around here, traffickers make the rules.
HENRIQUE: (Through interpreter) You have to respect them. They are in power.
REEVES: Is there a little bit of you, a little part of you, that feels some respect for the police?
REEVES: And is there a little, tiny part of you that feels some respect for government?
REEVES: Henrique, the former dealer, and Dantas, the 28-year-old cop, have something in common. Both want out of Jorge Teixeira. Dantas believes that traffickers are winning here. They're better organized than law enforcement, she says.
DANTAS: (Through interpreter) They even pay university tuition for their young guys. They pay them to go to law school so they have a lawyer to defend them.
REEVES: Dantas also wants to go to law school because that would qualify her to become a police inspector and carry on the fight against crime, although she would prefer a different part of town. Despite the dangers, she likes being a cop. Henrique, the former drug dealer, has bigger ambitions. He left school after fifth grade. Now he wants to go back to square one and study because one day...
HENRIQUE: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: ...He wants to be an airline pilot and escape a world in which so many young Brazilians are dying every day. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Manaus.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOTORRO'S "TIGERS & GORILLAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.