A Hard Look at Brazil’s Kidnapping Industry
‘Manda Bala’ shows how the rich steal from the poor, and the poor torture the rich
The woman shifts in her chair. Her words come in fits and spurts. In part because she’s waiting for her translator to change her Portuguese to English, but also because it’s such a gruesome story.
A painful memory to relive.
Men kidnapped her and threw her in the back of a car. They tied a bucket to her body, which she used to relieve herself during her captivity.
The kidnappers took her to a house, turned on a television and cranked the volume. It masked the sound the woman’s screams. The TV played an Alfred Hitchcock marathon. At night, she dreamed she was Tippi Hedren in The Birds.
The men had to prove they were serious. Her family needed to know they’d do whatever the kidnappers demanded. So the men cut off her ears.
“They sent it to my father on Father’s Day,” she says. “With a note from me saying, ‘Dad, I did not forget your present.’ With flowers. And there was a picture and a piece of my ear inside the box.”
In the video, her ears are immaculate. You would never know criminals had sawed them off. This is São Paulo, Brazil. Kidnappings are so common here that an industry of plastic surgeons specializing in ear replacements earns millions every year.
It’s just one piece of Brazil’s kidnapping economy. A culture where the rich leech off of the poor, and the poor repay the favor with violence. A word expertly illuminated in Jason Kohn’s 2007 documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet).
It’s a film worth revisiting as Brazil continues to struggle with one of the world’s highest crime rates—and a war between the police and criminals goes on behind the backdrop of the World Cup and the upcoming Olympic Games.
It all starts at a frog farm.
The farm in question is one of the largest in the world. It’s situated in the northeastern state of Pará. The state and its neighboring state of Amazonas are two of the poorest regions in the country.
To reduce the poverty rate, the Brazilian government created a regional investment agency in 1953 known as the Superintendency of Development for the Amazon, or SUDAM.
The federal government shut SUDAM down in 2001. Many of the businesses developed under the agency’s guidance were simply fronts to launder cash or embezzle tax money.
No one is sure just how badly SUDAM and its caretakers suckered Brazilians for, but conservative estimates place the figure around $2 billion. The frog farm is one of those businesses. A business run by charismatic Brazilian senator Jader Barbalho.
“Barbalho is accused of receiving nine million dollars from SUDAM,” says one investigator. “To build a $300,000 frog farm.”
The filmmakers ask the frog farmer about the corruption allegations. He smiles and gives the Portuguese equivalent of “no comment.”
From here, director Kohn jumps to an interview with a strange-looking man. The man wears clothes too big for him, a baseball cap and dark sunglasses. He asks the filmmakers to call him Mr. M.
Mr. M is in business of some kind. Something to do with computers and banking. He’s vague about it. He doesn’t want to give out more information than he has to.
The jump between corruption, violence and ordinary business is jarring. Kohn does it over and over again in Manda Bala. One moment he’s speaking with Brazil’s attorney general about corruption, and the next he’s talking to a plastic surgeon who specializes in ears.
“I really thought of Manda Bala as a non-fiction RoboCop,” Kohn told IndieWIRE back in 2007. ”[It depicts] a very real broken and violent society.”
Kohn is showing and not telling. I expected him to tie the disparate pieces of his narrative together, perhaps ending on a long monologue connecting the dots.
He never did, and I’m thankful for it. The power of Manda Bala is that it simply shows life in São Paulo without the commentary.
The story doesn’t need a moralizing narrator to clarify its central message—that violence in Brazil is a direct result of corruption.
The income inequality in Brazil has grown to monstrous proportions. The poor live in slums while the wealthy live in high-rises and gated communities.
Brazil is home to the largest fleet of private helicopters in the world. The ultra-rich take them everywhere. The ground is just too violent.
“Most of my net worth is in bullet-proof cars,” Mr. M says. Criminals kidnap someone every single day. São Paulo’s police force has an anti-kidnapping division. But a mere 80 detectives cover the city’s 20 million people.
Kohn interviews a plastic surgeon who’s made millions pulling ribs from kidnapping survivors’ bodies, and giving them new ears. He follows Mr. M to a special class called “How to Drive Your Bulletproof Car and Avoid Getting Kidnapped.”
Kohn speaks with survivors, lawyers and police officers. Between these conversations, he plays footage of the frog farm. Workers process the frogs and turn them into food for the wealthy.
The film has two villains. The first is a career criminal—Magrinho.
Magrinho wears a mask during the interview. He explains his criminal operation.
“It works just like a company,” he says. “You need structure, employees. It’s the same thing. You rent a car, house, clothes. You buy furniture and move in and hire a couple to live in the house.”
“I studied and watched the victim for 65 days,” he continues. “It was hard to get him, because he drove a bulletproof car and had bodyguards following in another car.”
Magrinho is a professional. He captured the man he’d studied for more than two months. Actual footage of the man’s ransom notes play during the conversation. They are horrifying.
The other villain is Barbalho—the politician who stole so much money from the Brazilian people. His effect on the country is enormous.
In Belém, the capital of Pará—where the roots of his corruption run deep—he owns the newspaper, television station and the radio station.
After his corruption became too egregious to ignore, other politicians in Brazil pursued legal action against Barbalho. Unfortunately, sitting politicians are immune to prosecution in civil courts.
The senate forced him to resign, then arrested him and charged him with corruption. A tribunal overturned the charges. He avoided prison. He was re-elected senator of Pará in 2011, and still holds the position.
Magrinho—Kohn’s talkative kidnapper—died after the production of Manda Bala. Police gunned him down in a shootout.
Mr. M is considering purchasing a subdermal tracker. There’s a company manufacturing chips like those pet owners inject under the skin of their dogs.
“I would use two chips from two companies in two different parts of the body,” he says. “One chip wouldn’t be enough. What if [the kidnappers] find out?”
In the Belém slum of Jaderland, children point sticks at each other while holding phones to their faces. They’re negotiating. Another boy holds a smaller kid in a headlock off to the side. He uses a stick mock-cut his buddy’s ear.
They all smile. It’s just a game to them.