Rio: The War of the Favelas

Young men at the top of the Vidigal favela, Rio de Janeiro, 2010
David Alan Harvey/Magnum Photos
Young men at the top of the Vidigal favela, Rio de Janeiro, 2010

Although visitors lured by the prospect of sun, surf, samba, and soccer may not perceive it, Rio de Janeiro is actually two very distinct cities. Some five million people live at or near sea level in what Brazilians describe as “the asphalt,” supplied with all the usual public services: subways, electricity, garbage collection, and at least a semblance of the rule of law. But another million or more Cariocas, as Rio residents call themselves, have been consigned to “the hillside,” a world of squatter settlements known as favelas, most of them indeed on hills, in which normal urban amenities like sewers and running water are scarce and a strikingly different system of laws, values, and conduct prevails.

Misha Glenny’s Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio aims to give a sense of what life is like in those favelas, which, though they exist on the margins of every Brazilian metropolis, are especially visible and important in Rio, where they number more than one thousand and overlook Ipanema, Copacabana, and other elegant neighborhoods. The book’s arrival is timely: with the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled to begin in Rio in August, the world’s attention is focused on the city, and Brazil’s success or failure in dealing with what it perceives as its biggest public security challenge, the threat of violence in favelas, is relevant not just to the country’s 200 million people, already grappling with the Zika virus and the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history, but also to the thousands of tourists, athletes, and journalists who will flock to Rio for the games.

Outsiders tend to think of the favelas as lawless places, but that’s not quite true. In City of God (1997), Paulo Lins’s novel about growing up in a violent housing project whose residents had been forcibly relocated from favelas the Rio authorities had razed, Lins describes a society based on consideração—literally “consideration.” In favela-speak the word is closer to “deference” or “respect.” Favelas do not offer even the pretense that all men are created equal, much less women. Instead there is a clearly defined hierarchy, at the top of which is a criminal don whose word and whims are law, rigorously enforced. Some of these chefões, or big bosses, are relatively benevolent or rational, in which case life for the working-class poor who make up most of the population in any favela can be tolerable. But others are violent, paranoid, and, though cunning, not particularly intelligent, which can make life miserable for the ordinary favelado.

This is not a phenomenon new to Rio: nearly a century ago, the Carioca writer and flaneur Benjamim Costallat observed that “the favela is a city within the city, perfectly diverse and absolutely autonomous.” But as favelas have grown and metastasized, they have seemed increasingly intractable, challenging the capacity of the state to govern. Rio has police, two forces to be exact, the military police and the civil police, but historically they have often been at odds with each other rather than working together, and have generally been unwilling or unable—most likely both—to go into the favelas. Corruption is widespread, and when police do venture into the favelas, it is often with guns blazing, shooting indiscriminately at anything that seems suspicious.

In addition, there are “militias” of off-duty officers and retired cops, with a lineage that stretches back to the death squads active during the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. They don’t hesitate to kill drug dealers large and small, but their motivation is often not clear, since some of the militia groups have themselves taken over lucrative criminal activities controlled by the bosses they are eliminating, and they sometimes clash with on-duty police.

Finally, there are three large and mutually antagonistic alliances of drug lords, another legacy of the dictatorship. The most powerful of these, the Red Command, emerged after common criminals were allowed to mingle in jail with left-wing political prisoners, who passed on organizational techniques and a sense of discipline. The other two groups, the Friends of Friends and the Third Pure Command, are the product of subsequent schisms.

To tell this exceedingly complicated story, Glenny, a British journalist whose previous books include McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld (2008),* focuses on Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, nicknamed Nem, for many years the drug boss of Rocinha, a favela whose approximately 150,000 residents make it Rio’s biggest. In Portuguese, Lopes’s street name is a slangy shortening of the word for “little kid,” but also carries an undertone of nullity—nem can mean “without,” “not even,” or “never”—and that is how his life begins. Born in Rocinha in 1976, he loses his father, a bartender who is shot at work, when he is a child, endures a mother who is a neglectful drunkard, and seems to have few prospects.

Glenny’s approach offers both advantages and disadvantages. Because of Rio’s unusual geography, sandwiched between mountains and the South Atlantic Ocean, each of the city’s favelas has a different dynamic, population, and leadership, so generalizations are dangerous; but emphasizing the largest offers a larger, more varied cast of characters. In addition, Nem starts as a sympathetic character: when introduced to us, he has just been promoted to supervisor for a company that distributes a magazine listing TV programs. But his baby daughter falls ill, he doesn’t have the money the hospital is demanding, and so, out of desperation, he asks Rocinha’s drug boss for a loan and is pulled into the drug trade, first as a common soldier, then as an accountant, moving up the ladder as he would at any other company, in a trajectory typical of favela drug bosses.

Glenny mentions Fernandinho Beira-Mar, Rio’s most feared and powerful drug lord during much of the period covered by Nemesis, describing him as representing “a new generation of dynamic and determined commanders.” As top man in the Red Command, Fernandinho Beira-Mar—“Little Freddy Seashore” would be a literal translation—can’t be ignored. He established a guns-for-drugs barter arrangement with the Colombian guerrilla group FARC, organized mortar attacks on police stations, ordered stores all over the city to close as a show of authority, and continued to run his operation and arrange hits on rivals even after he was jailed, thanks to his access to cell phones smuggled into his prison cell. His story might have been even more interesting—and certainly more significant—than Nem’s, had he been willing to talk.

A scene from the film City of God (2002), based on the novel by Paolo Lins
Miramax/Everett Collection
A scene from the film City of God (2002), based on the novel by Paolo Lins

Life in the favelas was never as idyllic as portrayed in the 1959 film Black Orpheus, which won both an Oscar and a Golden Palm at Cannes and first brought Rio’s favelas to global attention. Nor was it as colorfully bohemian as the lyrics of samba composers like Cartola, Noel Rosa, Nelson Sargento, and Carlos Cachaça might suggest. But as Janice Perlman notes in The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro (1976)—which along with her more recent Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro (2010) remains the most comprehensive academic study of the city’s favelas available in English—even as late as the mid-1970s, around the time Nem was born, favela residents could enjoy a life “rich in associational experience, commonly imbued with friendship and cooperative spirit, and relatively free from crime and interpersonal violence.” What policing there was concentrated on what Brazilians call contravenção—infractions like running the jogo do bicho, a numbers game based on twenty-five animals. “I felt safer walking around the favela at night, and living there, than I ever had in Cambridge or New York!” Perlman adds.

What changed everything was the arrival of cocaine, which coincided with Brazil’s transition from a military dictatorship to a boisterous democracy—and a loosening of police and political repression. Glenny gives the date of Rio’s cocaine explosion as 1984, the last year of the dictatorship, but 1980 seems even more appropriate. In July of that year, as a result of a military takeover in neighboring Bolivia, known as “the Cocaine Coup” because it was supported and partly financed by a leading drug cartel, General Luis García Meza became Bolivia’s “narcodictator.” He installed Colonel Luis Arce Gómez as his minister of the interior, putting the thuggish officer in charge of both political repression and coordinating with the main drug cartel in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in eastern Bolivia.

Almost immediately, Rio was flooded with cocaine of Bolivian origin, and the numbers game bosses who had long controlled the favelas, while dabbling in marijuana as a secondary activity, were pushed aside, often brutally. Glenny mentions one rather roundabout drug route from northern Bolivia into the Brazilian Amazon and then overland to Brazil’s urban centers, but there were also others that were equally, if not even more, important. Because Colombian cartels had not yet consolidated their control of the cocaine trade and shifted production to their homeland, the drug could also be shipped by road or railway directly from Santa Cruz, through a porous border, and then on to São Paulo and Rio; another important pathway piggybacked on a traditional route used to smuggle appliances across the Paraná River from Paraguay into Brazil.

Glenny is correct to conceive of the 1980s and onward as a true “battle for Rio,” and he clearly sympathizes with the beleaguered favela residents, caught as they are between the drug gangs and the police. He also gives us portraits, complete with humanizing small details, of the police officers who tried to negotiate Nem’s surrender before he was arrested. One investigator is a Buddhist who quotes Michel Foucault and believes that “some form of military control in slums was probably established by the ruling class in order to ensure that their inhabitants did not develop political or revolutionary aspirations.” In his off hours, another turns out to be “the lead singer of a heavy metal band that goes by the English name Unmasked Brains.”

The official who emerges as most sympathetic in Glenny’s account, however, is José Mariano Beltrame, secretary of public security for the state of Rio de Janeiro since 2007. In a memoir of his own that awaits translation into English, Todo Dia É Segunda-Feira (Every Day Is Monday), Beltrame gives a version of Nem’s rise and fall that differs substantially from Glenny’s. But Beltrame grudgingly recognizes Nem as a shrewd adversary who was more dangerous than others because he had the intelligence and initiative not just to sell cocaine in Rocinha, but also to refine it there, which increased his profit margin and enabled him to suborn the police more efficiently. Nem had “a peculiar modus operandi,” Beltrame writes:

While the Red Command imposed itself through force and the strength of its armaments, [Nem’s] Friends of Friends, as their name insinuates, had a strategy of massive spending on police corruption. It was a faction more concerned about prevention. Since it had fewer “soldiers” and arms, it only went to war when attacked. Thanks to the collusion and support of bad agents, it was able to armor-plate its territories and make difficult any attempt to invade.

The perversity of the system is made clear in an anecdote that Nem tells Glenny. He had ordered his forces to turn over a rapist to the military police—in many favelas the drug boss would have taken justice into his own hands and subjected the offender to “the microwave,” in which a criminal is placed in a stack of tires, which are then doused with gasoline and set afire—only to be told that the police would not act unless they received a 10,000 real bribe, then worth about $6,000:

“No,” said Nem, infuriated. “We don’t want them to release the guy. Go back and explain that we want them to arrest him!” But the guys explained that the officers wanted 10,000 reals to arrest the rapist. “What sort of a world are we living in,” Nem asks…despairingly, “when you have to pay the cops to arrest criminals?”

Yet Glenny gives little sense of how conflicts among the various police forces and drug factions were perceived by the majority of Rio’s population. The middle class is largely absent from his account of “the battle for Rio,” and when its members do appear, they are usually pampered youth climbing the hills to buy drugs or their affluent parents who hire favela residents as maids, nannies, cooks, chauffeurs, and gardeners, while apparently largely indifferent to their employees’ plight. Having spent so much time on the hillside, Glenny seems to have adopted the viewpoint of its residents. You don’t get the impression that he has similar sympathies for people on the asphalt streets below, who feel they are under permanent siege.

Throughout the book, for instance, there are references to the “smoke shops” where drugs are dealt and consumed. But we get no feel for what happens to those who develop drug habits and don’t have the money to pay for what they ingest. They have to turn to crime to pay off what they owe, and since many of the drug bosses, Nem included, punish petty crimes that addicts might commit against fellow residents of the favela, those in need of money descend the hillside to the asphalt and there carry out both simple assaults and the mass sweeps of beaches or tunnels known as arrastões, or “dragnets,” in which roving gangs use their force of numbers to steal everything in their path.

For the perspective of the middle class, readers will have to turn elsewhere, to a book like Juliana Barbassa’s recent Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink (2015). Brazilian by birth but raised largely in the Middle East, Barbassa in 2010 accepted an assignment as the Associated Press bureau chief in Rio because of the challenge implied in returning to a city she regarded as “something broken, abandoned, its decay more tragic because of its promise.” Once installed there, she becomes acutely aware of a whole battery of “safety procedures not because they were unusual but because they were so familiar.” Such precautions, she writes, were absorbed almost automatically by residents on the asphalt, and “as much a part of life in the city as the profile of Cristo” at the top of Corcovado mountain. Recalling the process by which life in Rio became so full of “dont’s,” she writes:

I’d forget these commandments during my absences and then get chided upon my return: Don’t talk on your cell phone in public, don’t wear that watch, don’t wear that ring, don’t go out alone at this hour, don’t open the window, don’t stop at the light, don’t forget to lock the doors. You’re taking the bus, are you crazy?… I was even scolded by a cabdriver once for climbing into his car without checking his face and his registration. Don’t flag a taxi in the street, he told me, call for one.

Glenny also oversimplifies the importance of the media in framing Rio’s debate over how to deal with the favelas and their residents. It is true that the city’s main newspaper, O Globo, and the national television network affiliated with it have a long and inglorious history of spreading fear. Glenny only hints at it, but the “Cruzada São Sebastião,” a dank corner of the otherwise ritzy Leblon neighborhood that Nem sought to dominate, came into being in the 1950s amid a campaign that the newspaper led to raze low-level favelas coveted by the same real estate developers who were among the newspaper’s main advertisers. Once demolished, the favelas were transformed into high-rise developments and an exclusive club.

But canny drug bosses, including those in jail, have learned to use the press to their own advantage, and some news outlets, especially those directed at the lower classes, have portrayed the bosses with more nuance. The same can be said of films like José Padilha’s two Elite Squad movies and his documentary Bus 174, which are as critical of police misconduct as of the drug lords. “The images transmitted by mass media are sufficiently pluralistic, differentiated and even divergent, besides having multiplied the number of participants in the public debate,” cautions Alba Zaruar in Um Século de Favela (A Century of Favela), probably the most comprehensive Portuguese-language treatment of the favela phenomenon, “not to be reduced to a single prejudiced viewpoint of certain sectors of the population.”

In fact, because of its structure and style, Glenny’s Nemesis itself often reads like an English-language version of a type of true crime story that has long been popular in Brazil. Glenny mentions the outlaw called Lampião, a Robin Hood figure active from 1919 to 1938 in northeast Brazil, who is even today a favorite subject of chapbooks recited in that region and in the favelas. But more modern examples, focused specifically on favelas and their crime bosses, abound. José Louzeiro’s Lúcio Flávio, o Passageiro da Agonia, which Hector Babenco made into a film in 1977, is one precursor of such stories, and Lins’s City of God, whose film version became a worldwide success in 2002 and has done much to shape Rio’s international image, is another. An even more recent example, not yet translated into English, is Caco Barcellos’s gripping Abusado, which, like Nemesis, focuses on the boss of a single Rio favela, Santa Marta. And though it is set in São Paulo, Drauzio Varella’s Estação Carandiru, also made into a film by Babenco, is equally revealing.

Glenny could also have made it clearer that a favela is not just a slum but a squatter settlement whose residents lack property rights—a point brought up several times in Ben Penglase’s lively account of his time on the hillside, Living With Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela: Urban Violence and Daily Life (2014). Rio de Janeiro and other large Brazilian cities are full of neighborhoods that are poor but whose residents own their own homes. That traditionally has not been the case in a favela, and while Glenny refers to houses being “bought” and “sold,” he does not mention that these transactions until recently did not have validity under Brazilian law. As a result, favela residents live in a permanent state of precariousness: the state can, and often has—including in the recent preparations before the Olympics and the 2014 soccer World Cup—forcibly removed them from their homes.

Nemesis is a useful and readable introduction to the favela phenomenon, especially coming from a writer who acknowledges that he was struggling to learn the slangy Portuguese of the hillside as he was researching and reporting. But Nemesis is sprinkled with minor errors of fact, spelling, and geography. Brazil is a nation of states, for instance, not provinces, and Fortaleza is a city, not a state. Rio has nearly a dozen professional soccer teams, not four, and the bossa nova first gained popularity outside of Brazil in the early 1960s, not the 1970s.

The most important recent initiative intended to break the power of the drug lords and reassert state control in the favelas is the UPP program, which Beltrame launched in 2010 with the intention of achieving those goals by the time the Olympics start this year. Glenny gives a detailed account of the creation and actions of these Police Pacification Units and how they altered the balance of power in Rocinha and other large favelas. Specially recruited, trained, and segregated from the regular police, the UPP units were supplemented by Brazilian army and navy troops and equipment in a show of what he calls, with no irony intended, “shock and awe.”

That led to a kind of renaissance, or at least a respite from violence, in the favelas that were “pacified.” Morro da Babilônia, where much of Black Orpheus was filmed, had by the first years of this century become a stronghold of the Third Command, which in addition to controlling the drug trade also monopolized essential services like gas for cooking. After the Third Command was driven out, hiking trails opened, as did restaurants, bars, hostels, and other tourist attractions, all of them taking advantage of the new peace and Babilônia’s privileged view of Copacabana and the Atlantic Ocean.

But with the Olympics looming, the UPP program now appears to have run out of steam. The city and state simply have not been able to train enough of the special police units to establish a permanent presence in each favela. As a result, the campaign has turned into a game of hide and seek: move into Cantagalo, and the Red Command will shift its leaders there to Borel, or vice versa. And in some favelas, the UPP forces seem to have slipped back into the bad habits typical of the other police forces: bribery, sexual exploitation, violence against residents.

The boss Nem, however, is not around to witness this firsthand, and won’t be going to any Olympic events. Though acquitted in July of charges stemming from activities in Cruzada São Sebastião, he has been sentenced to nearly fifty years on other charges and is now far from Rio in the maximum security prison where Glenny interviewed him. Meanwhile, back in Rocinha, aspirants to his vacated throne continue to appear, lending credence to the lament of a police official to Juliana Barbassa: “You kill one, there was another in his place, and what’s worse, his nephew now hated you, his friend now hated you…. There was no end.”

Glenny recognizes this truth in his book, too, and concludes on a convincingly skeptical note. “Pacification remains one of the boldest experiments in urban security,” he writes, with implications that interest even the Pentagon. But “the fundamental issues associated with guns, prohibition and poverty will certainly remain for years to come.”

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    Reviewed in these pages by Joshua Hammer, October 23, 2008.