Sarah Stern got the news via Facebook.
She saw a post, in Portuguese, from a woman she knew from a brief trip this summer. It contained the bombshell piece of news that would soon spread across international wires — that 35-year-old Antonio Bonfim Lopes had been arrested after years of having been hunted by Brazilian police in a Rio de Janeiro slum.
Stern was shocked. She knew Lopes was a drug lord, but she says she had no idea he was “one of Brazil’s most wanted” as she read in the New York Times.
Stern is a Kansas University junior in Latin American studies and strategic communications, but she’s no ordinary student.
That “luxurious lair” where Lopes hid from charges of being the kingpin of a $5 million-a-month cocaine racket mentioned by the Times? Well, Stern visited it, spent almost the whole night there. She’d been Lopes’ translator.
In May, she traveled to Rocinha, the favela, or hill-side slum, in Rio de Janeiro that until Thursday was controlled by Lopes. Gary Mark Smith, her photography instructor since she was at Lawrence High School, and Paul Sneed, a KU professor of Portuguese, were with her. The three lived in the favela for three weeks, documenting life for a book, due out in January. Toward the end of their trip, one of Smith’s cameras was confiscated by Lopes’ gang.
Through serious networking and a little luck, the group found their way to an event held by Lopes in his compound. Smith, who’s now on assignment in India, wanted to negotiate with Lopes to get the camera and asked Stern to be prepared to translate. Stern said she agreed but didn’t seriously think such an unlikely scenario would play out.
“This is something that happens in movies,” she said.
But happen it did. Stern said she told the gang leaders that her group was made up of artists, not spies. They just wanted to share the “lively, loving” people of the community with the larger world, and, drug gang leaders or not, they were part of that community.
“The people there know the gang members,” she said. “If you live in the favela, you probably went to school with them, grew up with them.”
After that night, the camera was returned with all its files intact. And they even had an easier time getting access in certain areas. Stern quoted Smith as joking, “Why didn’t we just talk to the drug lords at the beginning?” Following Lopes’ arrest, Stern said her bravery talking to him that night came out of slight ignorance. She knew it was dangerous but didn’t know the extent of Lopes’ accused crimes.
“Thank God I didn’t know,” she said on Saturday, or her nerves might have been too much to bear.
In the meantime, Stern keeps in touch with the friends she made in Rocinha through social networks and hopes the “pacification” of Brazilian slums that Lopes’ arrest is a big part of will be truly be a peaceful, beneficial process for their residences.
“Everyone is holding their breath,” she said. “Maybe it will go well, fingers crossed.”