Manoel Ribeiro has always been familiar with Rio de Janeiro’s most famous flea market, the Feira de Acari.
The bustling suburban market was established near his residence in 1970, the same year he was born. It was still in operation in 1993 when an armed robbery took place and the merchant was injured, resulting in permanent leg paralysis.
Until recently, it remained prosperous – a popular Sunday tradition known for its surprisingly affordable prices and immortalized in music by renowned Brazilian artists. “The Acari Market is a triumph. It offers everything. It’s enigmatic,” crooned singer-songwriter Jorge Ben Jor in one of his songs.
If Derek “Del Boy” Trotter – the fictional wheeler-dealer from the British comedy Only Fools and Horses – had been born in Rio, it would have been here that he plied his trade.
Two weeks ago, as the sun rose, the Acari street market was not present due to the sudden decision of Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, to put an end to its fifty-year history.
Ribeiro, 53, expressed his amazement as he maneuvered his motorized wheelchair to the market where he has been employed for more than four decades.
Ribeiro discovered that instead of the usual wooden stalls filled with goods and used clothing, there were many police officers and armed guards present. To prevent potential conflict, the canine unit had brought in two Belgian shepherd dogs to stand guard against upset traders.
The city government defends their crackdown by stating that criminals had taken control of the market and were using it to sell stolen items. “The market was commonly known as ‘robauto’ [auto theft],” explained Brenno Carnevale, Rio’s secretary of public order and a former police chief who was assigned to shut it down.
The moniker “Acari’s market” has been around for years due to its thriving business of selling stolen vehicle components. However, Carnevale argued that it wasn’t just car parts being sold there. Groups of robbers had been active in the region, stealing shipments of household items, clothing, and medicine and selling them at the market or distributing them to nearby slums.
Carnevale stated that currently, Rio is experiencing a high concentration of cargo thefts, accounting for 30% of all cases in Brazil. He shared his firsthand experience with the devastating outcomes of these crimes during his time in the homicide team. According to reports, the animal trade industry was also involved in the market, with one individual caught selling a toucan with an orange beak for 6,000 reals (£955).
Carnevale recognized that not all traders participated in illegal activities and that a significant number relied on the market for their livelihood. The area contains three of Rio’s biggest slums – Chapadão, Acari, and Morro da Pedreira – and faces some of the city’s lowest life expectancy rates.
The traders of Acari are furious about the shutdown and feel that it unfairly labels them as dishonest individuals.
According to Ribeiro, there are many respectable individuals who work at this place. It is not accurate to label it as solely being run by drug dealers and thieves. Ribeiro sells discounted air fryers, popcorn makers, and fans that may have some minor flaws.
“If there are individuals engaged in malicious activities, stealing items, I can confidently state that it is 5%.”
Luciana Rodrigues, a woman who sells underwear and is 49 years old, was very angry. She believes that the authorities should distinguish between honest people and criminals, but that is not what they are doing. Instead, they are treating everyone as if they are thieves. Rodrigues resides in Pedreira, a favela on top of a hill that overlooks the market that spans one mile.
Sérgio Luís Lopes da Silva, a 55-year-old who sells lightbulbs, stated that the market in Acari, where he works alongside his son, has been crucial in keeping his son away from criminal activities. According to Silva, his parents from the northern region of Brazil taught him that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and he credits the market for helping him escape poverty after he moved to Rio in 1986 from the underdeveloped north-eastern part of Brazil. He added that he arrived in Rio by livestock truck and now has a home and a car thanks to the market.
Other traders hailed the marketplace – which was also memorialised by Brazil’s most famous living sambista, Zeca Pagodinho – as a cultural treasure. “Culturally speaking, this is such a rich place,” said Aline Santos, a 39-year-old chocolate vendor.
Santos mentioned that there are various items available such as antiques, books, and CDs. He stated that there is something for everyone here. As traders gathered at the closed market to protest, they held up posters criticizing the government’s decision. One poster read “SOS Acari.”
Santos displayed her products’ 18 receipts on a poster to provide evidence that they were legitimately obtained from a wholesaler, refuting any claims that they were stolen. She confidently asserted, “We are not criminals and we have the proof to back it up,” as the group walked through the abandoned marketplace to the tune of a funky song praising its low-cost offerings.
The Feira de Acari has previously experienced attempts at elimination. In 1994, numerous soldiers surrounded the region following a mayoral order. Ribeiro recalls helicopters flying over the rooftops of Acari during the dramatic enforcement.
Over 100 individuals were apprehended by authorities and declared their objective achieved. A government official informed the Jornal do Brasil that the Acari market was eradicated, but this statement proved to be incorrect. Despite laying low for a brief period, merchants eventually resumed operations and the Acari market was revived, drawing in numerous bargain-seekers every week.
Carnevale emphasized that this occasion would be unique, but acknowledged that enforcing the ban posed a significant difficulty. “It’s the obstacle every victor must overcome – not just how to win, but how to maintain that success.”
The unemployed traders in Acari are wishing for his failure. The market’s shutdown occurred while the area was still recovering from devastating floods, which were attributed in part to climate change. Ribeiro suffered a loss of 5,000 reals in merchandise when heavy rain caused the Acari river to flood, destroying his delivery vehicle and home. “The whole area was submerged,” he explained. “I lost everything.”
He looked over his abandoned marketplace and felt sorrow for its decline, but he believed that it would recover in the future. “I have relied on this market for my livelihood all my life. To have it taken away so suddenly is like being fired from a job without warning.”
In the direction of the favela, higher up the road, demonstrators had placed a banner along the side of the road where buyers used to negotiate. The banner read, “Acari mourns.”