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Rio de Janeiro is preparing for its biggest annual occasion, Carnival. It's a glittering affair that attracts tourists from all over the world and for many of those decked out for dancing, a high point of their year. For some, though, it can be a deadly celebration. NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro has this story of a murder that is rocking the samba world.

LOURDES GARCIA NAVARRO, BYLINE: I'm standing in the neighborhood of Villa Isabel in Rio de Janeiro and right here where I am now at around 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night last month, Marcello da Cunha Freire was leaving the office when a car pulled up next to him. A witness explains what happened next.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: I was here just beside where it happened, she says, and I suddenly heard gunfire. I shut the door and hid, she says. The woman doesn't want her name used for fear of reprisals. She continues: After a few minutes I heard at least six more shots. There was a lot of confusion, people shouting, she says.

According to police, unknown assailants in a car hit Marcello da Cunha Freire with three bullets. He was taken to hospital where he later died. The murder could have just been another one of the many that happened in Rio every week, but it made headlines here because of who Marcello was, a high official, the vice president, actually, of one of the most powerful samba schools in the city, Salgueiro.

And his isn't the first death of someone linked to the school. In 2007, the group's then-vice chairman was killed in an early morning attack. Another group member was murdered in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NAVARRO: It's night and the Salguiero samba school is doing a full rehearsal on the streets of their neighborhood. It feels like a block party. Stands sell beer and snacks while people mill around, chatting and snapping pictures. But it's a serious business. Every year the 12 top-tier samba schools are locked in a fierce competition to be crowned Carnival kings.

The weather is sultry and hot and thousands of people from the neighborhood who've been practicing for months are running through their routines.

RAFAEL BRANDON: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: Rafael Brandon explains he's a samba school fanatic. For many Brazilians, the samba schools function almost like football clubs. They have their colors, their flags, their jerseys and their fans.

BRANDON: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: Brandon, who came with some friends to watch the rehearsals, goes on. Many people are discussing the Salgueiro school vice president's killing a few weeks ago, he says. The police are investigating but speculation is running rife here. To understand the Rio samba schools, you have to understand where the schools come from - marginal poor communities, mostly in the favelas or shantytowns of the city.

The annual displays the schools put on cost millions of dollars and so it's a combustible mix of money and poverty, according to Aydano Motta, a journalist and author who has written extensively about Rio's samba schools.

AYDANO MOTTA: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: A criminal world that actually partially finances many of the schools, mainly through something called jogo do bicho, which means the animal game. It's a lottery-type scheme that is as popular as it is illegal. Motta says the big leaders are called bicheiros and they are largely credited with making Rio's Carnival the global phenomenon it is today.

MOTTA: (Through interpreter) The bicheiros were called patrons, a nicer way of saying what they were. They perceived the value of the Carnival product. There was one in particular who was smarter than all of them and who set up the system as it stands today.

NAVARRO: His name was Castor de Andrade and he was, until his death in the 1990s, the king of the bicheiros and the grand patron of the samba schools. Which brings us to today. Many of the schools are still linked either covertly or overtly with the bicheiros. Several years ago, the Mangueira school was being investigated for links to drug kingpins, among other samba school scandals and deaths over the years.

Aydano Motta says while the world looks away when it's not Carnival time, crime bosses continue to lend support. That support, though, comes at a cost. Local press reported that in 2012 a fight between rival bicheiros led to the current Salgueiro chair, Regina Celi, began receiving death threats.

REGINA CELI: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: NPR was able to interview Regina Celi at the Salgueiro school. Dressed in a sequined turquoise dress, she was flanked by three bodyguards and didn't want any pictures taken.

CELI: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: Celi is the only female head of a samba school and she told us that in the male-dominated world, you have to inspire respect. When she was asked, though, about the death of her former vice president, she cut the interview short.

CELI: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: I have nothing to do with it, she said, neither does the school. It's a police affair now.

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NAVARRO: Back on the street in front of the Salgueiro samba school, a drummer practices as the countdown to Carnival continues. Victor Nascimiento works at the Salgueiro school and says the murder took everyone by surprise.

VICTOR NASCIMIENTO: (Speaking foreign language)

NAVARRO: The Marcello de Cuna Freire that I knew was a man who was correct and honest, he tells me. And I never thought he'd be caught up in a situation like that. In any case, he says, Carnival is less than a month away. It's sad, Nascimiento says, and we are in mourning, but we can't stop. We want to be the champions of Carnival and so we must go on. Lourdes Garcia Navarro, NPR News.

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