Manoel Ribeiro has always been familiar with the Feira de Acari, Rio de Janeiro’s most famous flea market.
In 1970, the bustling suburban marketplace was established near his residence, coinciding with his birth. By 1993, the market was still in operation when a merchant was injured in a nearby armed robbery and became paralyzed.
Up until last month, the event was still going strong – a beloved Sunday tradition known for its surprisingly affordable prices and immortalized in songs by renowned Brazilian artists. In fact, in one popular song, singer-songwriter Jorge Ben Jor praised the success of the Feira de Acari, calling it an enigma due to its diverse offerings.
If Del Boy, the character from the British sitcom Only Fools and Horses known for his wheeling and dealing, had been born in Rio, this would have been his place of business.
However, when the sun rose two weeks ago, the Acari street market was nowhere to be found due to the sudden decision of Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, to put an end to its fifty-year existence.
Ribeiro, 53, expressed his disbelief as he rode his motorized wheelchair to the market where he has been employed for more than four decades.
Instead of the usual wooden stalls filled with goods and used clothing, Ribeiro was met with a large presence of law enforcement carrying weapons. The canine unit had also been called in, with two Belgian shepherds tasked with keeping confrontational traders away.
The city government defends their crackdown by stating that criminals had taken control of the market, using it to sell stolen items. According to Rio’s public order secretary, Brenno Carnevale, a former police chief assigned to close the market, it was known as the “robauto” (auto-theft) market.
Acari’s market earned that nickname decades ago thanks to a booming trade in stolen car parts. But Carnevale claimed car tyres and tailgates were not the only things on offer. Gangs of cargo thieves had long operated in the area, hijacking lorries transporting household appliances, clothes and medicine and reselling the goods at the market or distributing them to nearby favelas.
“Regrettably, at this moment, 30% of cargo thefts in Brazil occur specifically in Rio,” stated Carnevale, who shared that he witnessed the fatal outcomes of these robberies during his time in the homicide division. It is believed that animal smugglers also utilized the market, as evidenced by a man who was apprehended for selling a toucan with an orange beak for 6,000 reals (£955).
Carnevale recognized that not all traders engaged in illegal activities and that for many, the market was their source of livelihood. The area is inhabited by three of Rio’s biggest slums – Chapadão, Acari, and Morro da Pedreira – and experiences some of the lowest life expectancy rates in the city.
The decision to shut down Acari’s trading has angered its traders, who feel unfairly labeled as dishonest.
Ribeiro, a seller of discounted air fryers, popcorn makers, and fans with slight imperfections, stated that there are many respectable individuals who work at this company. He disagrees with the perception that the workplace is filled with only drug dealers and thieves.
“If there are individuals behaving dishonestly in this area, stealing items, I can assure you with complete certainty that it is 5%.”
Luciana Rodrigues, a 49-year-old woman who sells underwear, was angry about the situation. She believes that the authorities should distinguish between honest people and criminals, but they are not doing so. Instead, they are treating everyone as if they are guilty. Rodrigues resides in Pedreira, a favela on a hill that overlooks the market, which is one mile long.
Sérgio Luís Lopes da Silva, who is 55 years old and sells lightbulbs, stated that the market in Acari, where he and his son work, has been crucial in keeping his son from turning to a life of crime. Silva added that he learned from his parents in the northern region of Brazil that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” He also credits the market for helping him escape poverty after he moved to Rio in 1986 from the less-developed north-eastern part of Brazil. “I arrived on a livestock truck, but now I have a home to live in and a car to drive,” Silva shared.
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 stated that the closed market has a variety of antiques, books, and CDs available for everyone. As traders protested, holding up signs criticizing the government’s decision, one read “SOS Acari.”
Santos provided evidence that her merchandise was obtained legally from a wholesale supplier by affixing 18 receipts to her poster. She confidently declared, “We are not criminals and we are ready to prove it,” as the group made their way through the abandoned market while a lively funk song played in the background, praising its low-priced offerings.
The Feira de Acari has previously been threatened with elimination. In 1994, the region was surrounded by hundreds of soldiers following a decree from the mayor. Ribeiro recalls watching helicopters fly over the rooftops of Acari during the intense operation.
Over 100 individuals were apprehended and the government declared success. A government official stated to the Jornal do Brasil that the Acari market had been eradicated. However, this was not the case. After a brief period of hiding, merchants came back and the market in Acari was revived, drawing in numerous bargain-seekers every week.
Carnevale maintained that this occasion would have a unique outcome, but conceded that enforcing the ban posed a significant difficulty. “It’s the obstacle that every victor must confront – not just how to achieve victory, but how to sustain it.”
The unemployed traders in Acari are wishing for failure on the part of Acari. The market was shut down during a time of turmoil as the area was dealing with severe floods, which were attributed in part to the effects of climate change. Ribeiro suffered losses of 5,000 reals due to the overflowing of the Acari river, which flooded his delivery vehicle and home. He expressed, “This entire area became a sea and I lost everything.”
While looking at his abandoned market, he expressed sadness over its decline but had hope that it would regain its success in the future. “My livelihood has always been tied to this market. It’s disheartening to see it disappear so suddenly, almost like being fired from a job without warning.”
Closer to the favela, demonstrators had placed a sign along the street where shoppers used to negotiate. It read, “Acari mourns.”