Life Imitates Art: ‘City of God’ Actor Accused of Killing Rio Cop

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Fifteen years after the release of one of Brazil’s most famous movies, a man who played a drug trafficker in the film has been accused of becoming a real-life gang boss, illustrating how closely the critically-acclaimed chronicle of organized crime in Rio de Janeiro parallels the reality still playing out in the city today.

As a teenager, Ivan da Silva Martins made his film debut as a drug trafficker in “City of God” (“Cidade de Deus”), the 2002 film by Brazilian directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund that won international acclaim for its portrayal of life in Rio’s marginalized neighborhoods known as favelas, which are often wracked by poverty and criminal violence. 

Now, the former actor known by the aliases “Ivanzinho” (roughly translated as Little Ivan) and “Ivan the Terrible,” is back in the international spotlight after being accused of involvement in the death last month of a police officer in Rio’s Vidigal favela.

Sergeant Hudson Silva de Araújo, who died as the result of a shootout, was the first police officer killed in Vidigal since a Police Pacification Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP) was established there in January 2012. Silva de Araújo was the 91st police officer killed in Rio de Janeiro this year.

On July 31, one week after the shootout, da Silva Martins turned himself into police to “prove his innocence.” Da Silva Martins told the Financial Times he feared extrajudicial execution by the police if he did not come forward.

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“City of God” director Meirelles told O Globo that he was “very upset” to learn of da Silva Martins’ suspected role in the killing of a police officer. Meirelles said that while he had hoped that the young men cast for the film from the Cidade de Deus and Rocinha favelas “would find their way in life,” he had fallen out of contact with da Silva Martins and the other child actors.

Shortly after filming for “City of God” ended in 2001, da Silva Martins was arrested for stealing a car at gunpoint. This was the first in a string of arrests and criminal charges, including several robberies and a 2014 charge that da Silva Martins had formed a criminal gang, for which he was a wanted fugitive at the time he turned himself in last week.

In 2013, da Silva Martins appeared in the documentary “City of God: 10 Years Later,” which followed up on the lives of the young men who had acted in the film.

At the time, da Silva Martins said, “I’ve been asked why I am following [a criminal] lifestyle. I’m doing it because I’m struggling, because I need money, because the film didn’t pay me enough. All of that [work on the film] didn’t mean anything, because there’s no point in making a globally-recognized film and staying poor.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Upon its release, “City of God” received widespread critical acclaim for its dark portrayal of the growth of organized crime and insecurity in one Rio de Janeiro slum from the 1960s through the 1980s. Almost two decades since the film’s premiere and five decades since the era in which it is set, insecurity in Rio persists, driven in large part by the factors cited by da Silva Martins: poverty and lack of legitimate opportunities for young people in the favelas.

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That the film so closely mirrors real life is perhaps unsurprising, given that it is based on a novel written by an author who had grown up in the real Cidade de Deus. But this verisimilitude is what has given the film its classic status; it is a vivid portrayal of how issues like poverty and marginalization contribute to insecurity, and how they have remained largely unaddressed for years.

Instead, authorities in Rio have for decades implemented heavy-handed security policies, including massive military deployments and flawed policing programs, which have not only proven ineffective at reducing crime, but have fueled human rights violations and left many favela residents more fearful and distrustful of police officers than they are of organized crime groups.

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