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In the Violent Favelas of Brazil

Walter Mesquita
A baile funk, or street party, in the favela of Complexo da Maré, Rio de Janeiro, June 2011

One night in Rio, Walter Mesquita, a street photographer, took me to a baile funk, a street party organized by the drug dealers, in the unpacified favela of Arará. It was an extraordinary scene: at midnight, the traficantes had cordoned off many blocks, turning the favela into a giant open-air nightclub. One end of the street was a giant wall of dozens of loudspeakers, booming songs and stories about cop-killing and underage sex. Teenagers walked around carrying AK-47s; prepubescent girls inhaled drugs and danced. On some corners, cocaine was being sold out of large plastic bags. Everybody danced: grandmothers danced, children danced, I danced. It went on until eight in the morning.

Although such parties are officially prohibited in the pacified favelas because of their multiple breaches of the law, ranging from noise violations to exhortations to murder—even the music played there is called baile funk proibidão—the state and its forces were nowhere to be seen. The rival gangs were a bigger threat than the police. The three gangs that control much of Rio have remained more or less stable for the last couple of decades: the Red Command, the Third Command, and Friends of Friends. According to a top police official I spoke to, in a city of just over six million there are some thirty to forty thousand people in the gangs.

The day after the baile funk, I was flying in a police helicopter over Rio. It took us over Ipanema, a beach for the well-to-do, and the newly pacified favela of Rocinha. I asked if we could fly over Arará. The pilot pointed it out in the distance, and said he could not fly directly over it. He was concerned about getting shot down. A couple of years ago, the traficantes had brought down a police helicopter with antiaircraft guns. So the police cannot safely enter a large part of Rio by land or by air. This, too, is the future of many megacities in the developing world, from Nairobi to Caracas. There is a de facto sharing of power between the legitimate organs of the state and the gangs, the militias. Many people will die as the exact contours of this power-sharing are negotiated.

My friend Luiz Eduardo Soares told me a story about power in the favelas. He is an anthropologist who was the national secretary for public security in 2003. He also wrote the book Elite da Tropa (Elite Squad), a study of police brutality and corruption that was made into the most popular film in the history of Brazilian cinema. He made many enemies among corrupt politicians and police. In 2000, security forces found detailed plans to kill Luiz and his daughters—there were notes on when and where they would be going to school, and at what times. The planners were corrupt police officers. Luiz had to flee with his family, first to the US, and then when he returned to Brazil, to a state in the south of the country.

One night Luiz had a call from a man named Lulu, one of the top traficantes in Rio. Lulu was now old for the drug trade—in his thirties. He wanted to surrender; he wanted to give up the gangs and live to see his children grow up.

Luiz said that if Lulu came to see him he’d have to arrest him. Then he would be put away in a jail like Carandiru, where after a 1992 riot the police opened the gates and sprayed the inmates with gunfire, massacring 111 of them. Luiz hoped for the best for Lulu, but his prospects did not seem good. He was wanted both by the police and by rival gangs.

A little later, Luiz was in the far north of the country, in a traditional temple where they worship old gods, the ones who were here before the Portuguese. Luiz was praying when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and saw Lulu smiling at him.

“What are you doing here?” Luiz asked.

“I’m here to see my mother. I got away.”

Soon after that meeting, the Rio police found Lulu. It was stupid of him: the first place a wanted man runs to is his mother. Men came up in a jeep and, without arresting him, took him back to Rio, to his favela, to the police station.

According to Luiz, the chief of the local police appealed to Lulu: “We want you back. It’s been hell since you left. You kept the peace among the gangs. And besides, I need your money for my political campaigns. You have to get back to work, or else.”

So Lulu went back to work, selling coke and meth to the rich kids in the nightclubs of Copacabana and Ipanema. But he had tried to break away; the boys on the corner didn’t trust him, didn’t respect him as they used to. He couldn’t make the 300,000 reais the cops demanded each week.

So one day they came again for Lulu. The cops, Luiz told me, sat him down in a stone chair in an open area of the slum and, with the whole favela watching, shot him in the head. He was useful to the police only when he had power to share. Powerless, he was dead.

Mário Sérgio Duarte is the high police official who led the invasion of Alemão, one of the largest and most dangerous favelas in Rio. In an eight-day operation in 2010, the police found more than five hundred guns: 106 carbines, rocket launchers, bazookas, thirty-nine Browning antiaircraft guns.

“Pacification started with me,” he tells me in the bar at the top of my hotel. Duarte’s mother was a seamstress; his father was murdered in 1972 over a “personal dispute.” Duarte studied physics in college, but chose to join the police force. His T-shirt says, “Listen as your day unfolds.”

In the 1980s, cocaine started coming into the favelas from Colombia and Bolivia, accompanied by Eastern European AK-47s from Paraguay. A carbine, such as an AK-47 or M-15, now costs around fifteen or twenty thousand reais—$7,500 to $10,000. The traficantes have rocket launchers now, says Duarte, “better weapons than the police,” who have .38s and 9-millimeter revolvers. Each year, some fifty cops and around 1,500 traffickers are killed. Last year, over a hundred police in São Paulo were murdered by the drug dealers, and police promised to kill five “bad guys” for every cop killed.

The drug trade in just one favela, Rocinha, Duarte tells me, runs to around a million reais per week. But it’s not just drugs. The dealers run a parallel economy in pirated cable TV, phones, and moto taxis, and have their own systems of justice.

“We don’t expect drugs to be stopped, just the violence with the drugs,” Duarte says. The drugs these days are ecstasy, PCP, and crystal meth, coming in from Europe. He points to Santa Marta as an example of a pacified favela where drugs are still traded, but there are no visible weapons, “no king of the hill.”

The state government has increased the armed police force in Rio from 36,000 to 42,000, toward a target of 50,000. (Another 10,000 are in the “civilian police,” who don’t wear uniforms and don’t carry official weapons.) Their salaries start at 1,500 reais per month, and in six years go up to 1,900 reais. A policeman stationed in a pacified area gets another five hundred a month to help him fight the temptation to take bribes or join one of the violent syndicates—the militias—run by corrupt police.

Duarte calls the militias “the rotten product of the official order.” There are a couple thousand policemen in the militias, he estimates, along with firefighters and ex-soldiers. They started…

“…from 2006!” a waiter from Rocinha who has been listening while getting our drinks chimes in.

The militias don’t allow drug dealing by the traficantes, but they make money in protection, cable TV, transportation, loan sharking. “A trafficker is hell, a militia is purgatory,” Duarte says. The militias create unwritten, though widely obeyed, rules for neighborhoods: you can’t leave your home after a certain time; if you rape women, you’ll be killed publicly in a ceremony. Your radio can’t be too loud. The punishment is often torture or the death penalty. The militias sell arms to traffickers; they deal drugs when necessary; they employ guards who are former traffickers expelled from gangs.

The enemies of the militias are the elite police squad, the BOPE, created during the dictatorship to fight Marxists but then retrained for pacification. (BOPE stands for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, or Special Police Operation Battalion—the unit featured in Soares’s book Elite Squad.) Duarte, who led the BOPE for a time, had to try to convince the government that there was a distinctive kind of conflict in Rio: “not ethnic, not religious, not Marxist.” He likes to quote Plato and Hegel in casual conversation. When I later mentioned to a BOPE sergeant that I’d met Duarte, he said, with a mocking laugh, “Ah, the philosopher.”

Along with Marina, I went to meet some “bad guys” in the Parque União subdivision of the Maré favela complex by the port. Two of them meet us in an open-air bar, a twenty-one-year-old ex-traficante and a handsome young man of the same age who sings in a nightclub and acts as the master of ceremonies there. The drug dealer has a tattoo on his right forearm that reads “Emilly.” “Minha filha,” he explains—his daughter. She is seven years old, and he doesn’t want her to go to the baile funk where he picks up his women. “I would like my daughter to escape the statistics.”

When he was active in the gang, he killed people in gunfights, and doesn’t feel bad about it. “At that moment, I can’t afford to think, he might be a father just like me. I’d rather have his mother’s tears falling on his grave than my mother’s on mine.” He’s also been involved in robberies in the rich parts of Rio. After the robberies, he and his gang hijack a series of cars until they get safely back to the favela. He never robs in the favela. Only someone who’s on crack will rob here. This explains why I feel safer here than I did the previous night on the beach in Ipanema.

When the favela wants to have a baile, people steal two buses from the yard across Avenida Brasil and block off the street with them. At the baile they may hear about someone who will be killed by the end of the evening—someone who’s insulted the “owner of the favela”—the top traficante.

The two young men insist on escorting us to our van on the highway. At one point, there are three white metal bollards implanted into the road, turning it effectively into a pedestrian zone. “That’s for BOPE,” the trafficker explains. The police cars will find a surprise when they try to invade.

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