03/22/2006 10:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bright Green Hills of Rio

"On the bright green hills of Rio,
There grows a fearful stain.
The poor who come to Rio,
And can't go home again..."

That's how Elizabeth Bishop saw it in the '60s, and of course it's worse now. The "stain" is bigger, there are more poor, and guns, now, as well. Too many guns, imported guns, illegal guns, all over the place, all the time, everywhere, and for the most part, no one thinks much about it.

But last week, the guns in question were stolen, from the military police, no less. Right from their "depository," apparently, and rather than ask themselves the kind of questions one might expect to come to mind as to the logistics of this impressive heist, the police roared up the narrow twisting streets, into the hillside slums themselves, where they, for the most part, do not pass. Those are the rules of life and death in these de facto cities -- Vidigal has 35,000 inhabitants, Rocinha 200,000 -- and they are governed as tribal areas, with laws of their own. At night, for example, you don't drive in with your headlights on -- only the police use headlights, to "blind" the inhabitants -- plus you'd better have the light on in your car, so they, whoever they are, can see you, or you're dead.

"Better skip Rio," my São Paulo friends warned me, as we watched the occupation, night after night, on the evening news. But "Don't be silly, there's no problem here," said my friends in Rio, and they were right, of course. You can see the slums from Leblon, Copacabana, Ipanema, and even hear the shots, but they mean nothing here. Life as usual.

As was the killing of the 13-year-old boy caught in the crossfire, and the baby, and a woman somewhere or other up there. The wrong place n the wrong time. And finally, the police got their guns back -- or guns like them.

Anyway, something to exhibit on the nightly news, eight or nine machine guns lying on a blanket -- and retreated back down those cobbled streets and normal life resumed in the hills as well.

I went up there, to a beautiful, crumbling old house in the slum of Vidigal, where Petrobras, their Standard Oil, is supporting one of those youth theatre-dance-music-film projects that the Brazilians like so much. An Italian who is teaching the kids film-editing took me out on the deck for a cigarette. We looked out over the splendid beaches in the distance, the rocks, the islands, and the South Atlantic. "The best view in Rio!" I was marvelling, but he was frowning at the vultures circling a neighboring hill.

"Bad sign," he said, and that's when the gunshots started, and we had to run inside.