Rio’s New Reality Show


Jefferson Bernardes/AFP/Getty Images

Children playing in a pool after a police raid on the house of the chief drug dealer of the Morro do Alemao favela, Rio de Janeiro, November 28, 2010

Not so long ago, whenever Brazilian professors were invited to give a lecture at a foreign university, they would be expected to say something about their country’s famously exotic national culture. There was no escaping Brazil’s reputation for samba, football, and beautiful mulatto girls, not to mention capoeira (a martial art), candomblé (a syncretic African religion) and feijoada (a traditional bean stew that has been considered, since the 1930s, the national dish). Today, the old cliché of laid-back, exotic Brazil is increasingly being supplanted by a less naive image, one dominated by violence, favelas, and drug-trafficking. But what is the meaning of this image, and how much grounding does it have in reality?

As recent events in Rio de Janeiro make clear, you don’t have to look hard to find this dangerous new Brazil. In late November, the Rio police and the Brazilian army began one of the most far-reaching domestic military campaigns in Brazilian history: a fully-fledged invasion—backed by thousands of armed troops—of Rio’s most violent slums. For almost two weeks, parts of Brazil’s second largest city were turned into a war zone, with tanks on the streets, gun battles, burned cars, and looting. The culmination of a two-year campaign to wrest control of Rio’s favelas from powerful drug traffickers, that operation has now been followed by a deployment of 2,400 paratroopers, who are intended to serve as an occupation force much like the peacekeepers Brazil has sent to conflicts in other parts of the world.

But the drug war in Rio does not explain the rapid spread of the public fear that has become a central theme in national and international depictions of the country. Movies such as News from a Personal War (João Salles, 1999), Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998), City of God (Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 movie based on Paulo Lins’s 1997 book), and the recent Elite Squad 1 and 2 (José Padilha, 2007 and 2010)—the latter, by the way, has become the biggest box-office success in the history of Brazilian cinema—have had an impact both at home and abroad, and have ensured that the subject of violence is never far from the lips of Brazilians. The more recent movies, in particular, which seem to be produced as quickly as TV series, seek to shock audiences with their graphic depictions of turf wars between drug gangs in the favelas, places ordinary Brazilians would not imagine visiting.

These movies, each with their own aesthetic of violence, are immediately exported, disseminating a feeling of fear and terror that fires the foreign imagination and troubles the local population. For those wishing to get a bit closer to the ground, there is a growing industry of “favela tours” that promise visitors the “thrill” of going into a real favela and finding out what life is like there and experiencing the danger first-hand—all in precise, measured doses, of course.

There is also the endless TV coverage of the chaos in the favelas. In recent days, we have been confronted with a veritable avalanche of images of the anti-drug offensive, a 24/7 reality show, with audiences glued to their front-row seats in their living-rooms, ignoring the evidence of the relatively peaceful streets outside. While Rio’s northern zone was experiencing something like a military invasion, in the south, life went on as normal, apart from hotels and restaurants, whose doors remained cautiously shut—just in case.

Most of this reality show leaves no room for nuance or interpretation: the good guys are on one side and the bandits on the other. I’m not defending drug-trafficking or the violence practiced by its participants—it is certainly true that gang warfare and the wars between the police and the traffickers have become an increasingly worrying and invasive part of everyday life in our major cities. But the prevailing black-and-white logic—according to which the drug trade is exclusive to favela life and doesn’t have implications for the police, politicians, or the population as a whole—is nonsense. It is now clear that drug-trafficking has been as omnipresent among certain corrupt police squads as it has in the favelas.

The trouble is that the ugly reality lives right next door; this is particularly ironic given a long history in Rio of attempts to segregate the poor from the rich. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Mayor Francisco Pereira Passos undertook a major reform of Rio, with the aim of turning it into a picture postcard, a shop-window of modern city life, by building new avenues, destroying old and working class houses, constructing new Republican monuments and fashionable side-walk cafes, and moving the poor people far away from the most prestigious and charming places in town. It was around this time that shantytowns grew up higgledy-piggledy on the outskirts of the city and rapidly evolved into permanent communities.


Prior to this, the abolition of slavery in 1888 had released onto the job market an ill-prepared, illiterate population, unfit to compete with an influx of European immigrants who had the necessary skills and knew the urban trades. A century of educational neglect, the lack of strong, secure political institutions, and the application of often discriminatory social policies made the favelas into parallel economies linked to the sale of drugs. Separate social structures also developed in these zones, operating alongside the frequently less efficient official ones. In some favelas, schools were set up and directed by the communities themselves, as were samba groups and organizations offering housing loans, all of which provided an alternative but equally effective model of social organization and leisure. The underlying dynamic of favela life, seen through this complex history, can be difficult to describe or even understand.

According to tradition, the Brazilian petty criminal who inhabited these areas was supposed to be a mischievous but harmless rascal, whether a sambista (good on the tambourine but essentially idle), or the Walt Disney version of the typical Brazilian male (Zé Carioca, a parrot who loves samba and football, but hates work). In Brazilian usage, there is a popular word that evokes this way of life, the malandro, celebrated in Samba songs during the thirties. Difficult to translate, it describes an urban character who wants to have a good and easy life, surviving through unofficial forms of work. Today, however, the malandro has become a drug baron armed with powerful weapons: he makes risky drug deals, controls private armies, is never older than 25, and lives above his favela in a flashy house complete with a swimming pool and Greek columns. At least, that is the image that has been conveyed to Brazilians by the press, following last month’s invasion of favelas in Rio.

The problem is that, with Brazil hosting the Olympics in 2014 and the World Cup in 2016, “the marvelous city” of Rio needs a make-over. How can a renewed democracy be built against this backdrop of conflict? According to Luiz Eduardo Soares, the anthropologist who was national secretary for Public Security in 2003, the popular opposition between good (the police) and evil (trafficking) is “a complete illusion.” He says: “when the authorities give the policeman on duty freedom to kill, they also give him, indirectly, the freedom not to kill. This has resulted in a certain amount of bartering going on during confrontations.”

Nor is this particularly new. There is the notorious example of the massacre in the Vigário Geral favela in 1993, when twenty-one innocent people were killed by policemen avenging the murders of their colleagues by traffickers. Indeed, as Soares mentions, the conflict that took place on August 21, 2010, in São Conrado (a district of Rio), was not the result of a planned police operation, but of a redrafting of contracts between traffickers and police who both make a living from drugs: they were arguing over fees, surcharges, and inflationary price hikes. One might say, then, that, since the early 1990s, we have reached a new stage in the economy of corruption in which the police have an increasingly sophisticated part: with contracts, informal tenders or, to use the local slang: “o arreglo”—“the arrangement.”

Since the World Cup and the Olympics are going to happen mainly in Rio de Janeiro, the Rio slums have become one of the federal government’s most pressing challenges. While São Paulo, for example, is mostly controlled by one group, “The First Command,” Rio has a lot of different factions and there is much rivalry among them. There is another problem as well: a police officer working in the Alemão’s favela receives $1,000 a month, only about as much as a young dealer at the bottom of the gang hierarchy would be paid to help protect the drug organization on his “hill” (the favelas occupy steep hillsides in the northern part of Rio). All this results in many layers of corruption even as the recent pacification campaign goes on.

Until now, the new president, Dilma Roussef, has remained silent about this problem, which for the moment remains under the jurisdiction of the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Although it is still too early to speculate about what the recent offensive may achieve in the long run, the future looks grim: some of the most wanted drug dealers escaped during the invasion to other, huge slums—like Vidigal and Rocinha—where they can hide more easily. Moreover, many specialists are convinced that the strategy has focused too much on “small fish” rather than the big bosses who continue to operate from other places—in some cases even from behind bars.


Amid this evolving situation, the views of average citizens, already long accustomed to a deluge of visual and virtual interference in their day-to-day existence, are increasingly shaped by the media. On December 13, for example, TV Globo, the biggest and more powerful network in the country, congratulated itself on being able to bring its viewers to places that had previously been off limits because of the drug-trafficking. As the program concluded: “the ordinary citizen can now see what Rio de Janeiro looks like from above”—from the privileged viewpoint of the favelas.

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