It's the Fourth of July in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil has just beat Colombia to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals and my neighborhood bar erupts in celebration and cachaca shots. Above the noise I hear my flip phone vibrate and answer an unrecognized number.
"Hi, who is this?"
"It's Isabel. I can't take this anymore. I am going to try to see the police tonight and sort this out. I need to go home and get back to my life."
I take a sharp breath in. The police are the same people who got Isabel into this whole mess. Police who raided the building in which she's worked as a prostitute for the last six years in Niterói city across the bay from Rio on May 23; police who beat down her door, took her money and raped her and her colleagues; police who started following her and taking pictures after she pressed charges; and police — or militia, she couldn't tell — who kidnapped her on June 21, took her ID, and told her to stop talking if she wants to live. She's been on the run ever since, with the clothes she had on the day of the raid; no ID, no money, and nowhere to go.
"Someone asked me if I've changed my appearance yet," Isabel told me. "With what money?"
Through a chance encounter with a sex worker rights activist I met during the World Cup, I found myself face-to-face with Isabel last week, while the razor cuts her kidnappers had made on her arms and neck were still healing. I gave her my number and told her to let me know if she needed anything.
But now it's been two weeks on the run, moving between safe houses, relying on others for cash and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, the pressure mounting to pay her late bills and her son's private school tuition, and no end in sight. She can't get any sleep, can't keep her food down, and tonight she sounds like she's at her breaking point.
"Where are you?"
"I don't know. Some apartment where the dog is shitting all over everything. I'm packing my bags and going back to Niterói."
"To the same people who did this to you?"
"I need to take things into my own hands and see if I can work something out."
I tell her I think it's a horrible idea, but she's an independent woman and can do whatever she wants. I ask her if I could go with her, wherever she wants to go, and she says she'll wait for me to get there. She doesn't know the address but tells me a nearby reference point.
A half hour later I meet her on the street and ask where she wants to go, hoping it's anywhere but the police station.
"Let's go to the hospital. My head is exploding." I feel relieved and get a taxi to the nearest urgent care. Two police bring a young teenager in — a skinny black boy with no shoes and handcuffs, sandwiched between two adults armed with rifles. They wait. We wait.
Isabel is a woman from Rio in her mid-twenties and a mother. She left home at 18, in search of her own financial independence and has been working (legally, in Brazil) ever since as a prostitute, from World Cup host cities São Paulo and Belo Horizonte to Rio Grande do Sul and Goiânia. "We go wherever the work is," she says.
For the last six years she's called the Caixa Economica home, a building on Amaral Peixoto Avenue in Niterói, a city across the bay from Rio that is undergoing an expansive re-urbanization project and is a primary beneficiary of the multi-billion dollar oil boom. Isabel is one of some four hundred sex workers who rent out 85 small apartments and service clients during the building's business hours. She makes about $4,000 a month. The workers' presence is an inconvenience for the residents on the fifth through eleventh floors, and for the image of the Federal Bank on the ground level, but Isabel says sex workers have been in the building for 40 years. It's the single largest sex zone in Niterói, but almost all of the women who work there are from far-flung parts of Rio and prefer hours of commute to the risk of running into someone they know.
Isabel says that her colleagues in the Caixa Economica building in Niterói have long had a friendly relationship with the police of the 76th Precinct down the street, but says everything changed in March when a new police chief was installed, and the same police that were their clients started conducting raids.
During one such raid on April 11, police arrested eleven sex workers without cause and sent them to Bangu, a maximum security prison. The aggressive action sparked protests the next day among Niterói prostitutes, including Isabel, chanting "Police, you are our clients" and inviting them back to the Caixa Economica for coffee.
"They ignored us," Isabel told me.
But the raid on May 23 was an entirely different operation. According to Gustavo Proença, a pro bono lawyer on the case and member of Rio's Coletivo de Advogados and the Rio Bar Association, who has been providing legal assistance on the case since May 23, the raid that day involved about 300 police officers from different precincts. "I heard there were police officers from UPP Rocinha, from Baixada — a really big police operation," he told me in a nondescript office in downtown Rio.
Proença says the operation started after a policeman had gone to the building to pay for sex as a client, and when it was time to pay, he said, "I'm not going to pay, I'm a police man, and you're all arrested."
"I only had time to go from the bedroom to the living room when they broke down my door," Isabel told me. "They came in, they were really rude, they didn't identify who they were or say what they wanted — nothing like that. They just started going through all my stuff: looking for my lockbox with my money in it, grabbing the money I had, about $1000. Then they went into our rooms and going through our purses and wallets, they went through our clothes and also searched our bodies. It was all men — there were no female police officers."
"When I started to ask them questions about what they were doing, I got hit in the face, they pulled my hair and put me back in my room. About twenty minutes went by and two police came back, and that's when they raped me. One raped me and the other only made me do oral sex."
"At the same time?" I asked her.
"What was it like? Was it really violent?"
"Did they use a condom?"
During the operation, police condemned the first four floors of the building that had housed some 400 prostitutes in 85 apartment units and declared them unfit for habitation. A police man installed at the entrance has kept prostitutes from re-entering their apartments ever since. "Residents are allowed in," Isabel says, "but not prostitutes." She says she's heard that anything that was left after the police raided them and stole their money was pilfered by residents.
"They locked us out of the building, closed down the reception, but everything they're doing is illegal. They've been throwing trash in the halls and inside our apartments, breaking our stuff. Why? Because every time they bring the press back there, the place really looks like it's trashed. So they can say these are no conditions to work in."
"But it's not true?" I ask her.
"The building really needs to be painted and fixed up, it does, that is not a lie. But the building is not at risk of collapsing. Because if it was at risk of collapsing, why did they only condemn our four floors? Why not all eleven? If someone really has a financial interest in taking over the building, okay. If they wanted to get us out, get us out. But why couldn't they just do it legally?"
"Juridically, the operation was totally wrong," says Proença. "They broke down their doors without warrants, asked the women for their names, filled out the papers and used them to bring them to the precinct," says his colleague Luan Cordeiro. "There were accounts of forced oral sex inside the building. One woman filed a complaint she was beaten on the bus to the 76th Precinct."
Lawyers Gustavo Proenca and Luan Cordeiro. Photo by Julie Ruvolo
Public defender Clara Prazeres filed a request to re-open the building, but the judge said she couldn't revoke the order because she hadn't requested it in the first place. Neither did the Civil Defense. "So it must have been the police who condemned it, but they don't have the power to do that legally," says Proença.
By the time of a public hearing organized by members of the Human Rights Commission and Women's Commission at Rio de Janeiro's State Legislature on June 4, Isabel was the only person who stuck around to testify. "But by then, a lot of women had left. They didn't just stick around Niterói, you understand? They've gone home, they aren't coming back," Isabel told me. "But I wasn't just speaking for myself. I was speaking for hundreds of other women who want the building to re-open so we can go back to work. But they don't have the courage to speak up, and I've wound up speaking up for them, and that's why I've been singled out."
Isabel's colleagues have since disappeared back into the sprawling fabric of Rio's sex industry, and Rio's Observatory of Prostitution/UFRJ, a research project organized by Rio de Janeiro's Federal University that has gathered interviews with sex workers during World Cup, has noticed them showing up in Vila Mimosa, the red light district, and the Copacabana strip where all the World Cup tourists are cruising. "They're scared," Isabel told me, "because, like it or not, they know what's happening. And after all that's happened to me, they're even more scared."
A few days after she testified in Niterói, Isabel says she started noticing policemen taking photos of her on the street and following her in their car. Then on June 21, she was walking on the street in Niterói when a car approached her. "A guy on a motorcycle boxed me in and threw me in the car, and as soon as I got in another guy hit me in the head and something cut me. I didn't know if they wanted to mess with me or rob me or kill me, but they only took my ID and proof of residence. I put my head down and they started cutting my arms and showed me a photo of my son in his school van. They told me to stop talking to the media, because I didn't know who I was messing with, that I could get myself in trouble."
"After 20 or 30 minutes they let me go. I was in shock. I stayed a long time just standing there in the street. I was going to call the Military Police, but I thought, I can't call them because I don't trust them. Military Police are the ones who were taking pictures of me. Then I said I would call the Civil Police, but I couldn't call them either, because I don't know who's behind all of this. So I called a friend and told her what happened, and she told me to go somewhere with a lot of people until she could get there, so that's what I did."
Since then she's been on the run, switching safe houses with almost the frequency she's been switching phone numbers. "Maybe if we had a collective, and we were speaking out together, they wouldn't have the courage to do this to me and another 300 or 400 women."
Isabel on the night of the raid. Photo by the Observatory of Prostitution
It's a fucking ice box in the urgent care. I'm cold. I hate places like this. The doctor finally calls Isabel in and orders blood work and a chest X-ray before setting her up on an IV drip. I can't wait with her but I'm sitting behind the next wall, waiting.
"What did you tell her?" I ask her.
"Everything. That I was a prostitute until police raided our building, I haven't been able to work, I have nowhere to live and no clothes and no money, and somebody is looking for me."
"And what did she say?"
"She thinks I was having a panic attack and said I need to try to relax. And she asked if I needed a place to sleep, and told me I could go to the shelter. But I won't go. I'm not homeless. I won't accept it. I'd rather figure things out on my own. I'd rather put my life at risk than go to a shelter. I won't go."
The shelter is for victims of domestic abuse, not activists in the making, on the run from their own police force. Isabel says she's shocked with how little emergency resources are available for someone in her position. None of the non-profits who have swooped into Rio to fight sexual violence during World Cup have taken notice of her case or come to her aid.
Her only support has been a growing patchwork of human rights activists. The pro bono lawyers and public defenders have been working with her since May 23 to represent her and help her navigate how to proceed legally through a string of illegalities. Sex worker rights NGO Davida and Rio's Observatory of Prostitution have been accompanying her case and mobilizing political support along with Federal Deputy Jean Wyllys and his parliamentary assistant, Indianara Siqueira, who is also a sex worker rights activist at Davida. And since her kidnapping on June 21 made Isabel a de-facto activist, non-profits Frontline and Justiça Global have come to her aid, and Amnesty International has launched an urgent action campaign demanding that Rio's State Secretary of Public Security provide protection for Isabel and investigate her kidnapping.
But the help can't come fast enough for Isabel. It isn't paying rent or her bills or her child's private school tuition. "I want to go back to work but nowhere I could work would be safe," Isabel tells me as her IV empties out. "Our building is still closed down and nobody has been let back in. Not even the street is safe — that's where I got kidnapped."
I ask her about a closed venue, like a spa brothel. "It's easy for people to find out where you are when you're a prostitute," Isabel says, referencing the fact that someone is getting paid off no matter where you're selling sex in Rio.
Isabel says she's feeling better, her headache is gone, the doctor must have put something to make her sleepy in it, because she's finally feeling sleepy. She asks me to drop her off at a friend's apartment.
We walk out with her x-ray in hand into the night. She seems validated, showing me her results. "See that? The doctor said I was right on the limit of a cardiac arrest."
We take a taxi to her friend's address and wait till she gets downstairs. I ask her if she regrets speaking out after what's happened, and she tells me, "It's too late now. I'm already an activist." She throws out her SIM card and they go inside. I haven't heard from her since.