For many tourists, Rio de Janeiro is all carnival, caipirinhas and Copacabana. But there’s another side they don’t always get to see, much less understand. In 2018 Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain espousing “family values,” won the Brazilian presidency on the promise to kick-start the economy, and stamp out crime.
Bolsonaro has led one of the world’s worst responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, at one point suggesting the whole thing was a hoax, and recently taking part in a protest calling for an end to quarantine and social distancing measures. While the head of the largest nation in South America was out shaking hands and potentially acting as a one-man bioweapon, it’s fallen on local authorities, such as Rio’s Governor Wilson Witzel, to try to contain the situation.
But not everyone who runs a city is elected. The drug gangs that rule the favelas—the slums or shantytowns piled on top of each other over the green hills of Rio—have also stepped in.
“Lately they’ve been bringing things to the community like grocery bags and cash,” said André*, who runs a small business in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. “It’s like a motivational thing, to help people stay strong in these hard times.”
Such is the gangs’ control over many poorer neighborhoods that Brazil’s former health minister seriously considered sitting down with them to help develop a coronavirus strategy collaboratively.
The scarcity of other help makes any support welcome. “There are a few NGOs I know helping people with food and cleaning products,” said André, “and the government is now helping some people with 600 reals ($113) a month—that’s nothing!”
“They’re seen in a different light, as the only people that locals can count on.”
“A lot of people here [in Rocinha] have tested positive; some have died,” he continued. “Only essential businesses are still running but everything else is shut down. The main street here by the metro is quiet, but there’s still some people not respecting the curfew. Me, I’ve been staying at home, but I’ve still gotta buy food and pay the bills.”
I asked André how he saw the gangs’ intervention. Is it just a cynical way to strengthen their grip on the community?
“Yeah! It’s good public relations, you’re right!,” he replied. “But I think it’s more because they grew up in the hood. I don’t think it’s just to look good. They’re seen in a different light, as the only people that locals can count on.”
Brazil’s traffickers aren’t alone in filling such a role during the pandemic. El Chapo’s daughter was spotted handing out aid to cash-strapped families in Mexico, and the Mafia has been giving away food parcels in crisis-struck Italy. In Japan, the meth-dealing yakuza have been dispensing face masks at pharmacies and nurseries. Street gangs have also been enforcing quarantine with baseball bats in El Salvador.
Meanwhile, shadowy militias have imposed curfews in other parts of Rio. But how did Brazil get to this point? The answer takes us back in time to an era the president remembers fondly.
Brazil in the 1970s was going through its “Years of Lead”—so-called because of all the bullets fired. In 1964 the military seized power in a coup backed by, you guessed it, the CIA, to save the country from “communism” (President João Goulart’s mildly left-leaning reforms). The regime is remembered for suppressing freedom of speech and torturing dissidents.
In return, left-wing “urban guerillas” launched several high-profile operations, like the kidnapping of the US ambassador by MR-8 (Movement 8 October, after the day Che was captured in Bolivia), dramatized in the movie Four Days in September.
Bolsonaro looks back on the era with nostalgia.
“It was 20 years of order and progress,” he wrote of the junta. “It’s clear the Left wants to go down in history as the great victim who fought for the current democratic state, completely reversing the role of the military which in 1964, at the request of the press, the Catholic Church, businessmen, farmers and women on the streets, intervened so that our country would not become another satellite of the Soviet Union.”
The generals stepped aside in 1985, just as the cocaine boom was beginning. Before long Rio’s favelas, always poor but not particularly crime-ridden, were in the grip of the militants’ coke-dealing descendants.
Lying on a hill between Leblon and São Conrado, two of Rio’s richest neighbourhoods along the beaches in the South Zone, Rocinha is the most strategic favela for the drug trade.
Its previous de facto ruler, Nem of the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA, “Friends of Friends”) gang, set up his own cocaine lab for processing coca paste straight from Bolivia. At his peak, Nem supplied blow to over half the city. ADA ruled Rocinha until 2017, when a power struggle led to the Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”) hoisting its red flag over the hill.
Last year I spent some months in Rio and visited Rocinha. Among other things, I wanted to meet the man who runs the neighborhood. Weaving through a series of narrow, damp alleyways with my guide, we ominously saw what looked like a seagull flying away from an open sewer clutching a rat, the furry critter struggling to break free. Damn, I thought, even the birds here are hardcore.
We reached an open area where a group of young men in flip-flops stood clutching high-caliber rifles. They looked very much like rebel fighters in a battle zone. It was the middle of the day, and folks were just passing by carrying groceries, like the guns were part of the scenery.
“All of us have reasons for doing this. It’s not like we woke up one morning and decided we wanted to be drug dealers.”
It had taken us three weeks to work our way up the hierarchy to talk to the big boss after convincing his underlings I wasn’t a narc (“He’s written a book for God’s sake,” my friend cried at one point, “you can look him up!”). Finally, Comando Vermelho’s regional manager agreed to meet me outside a tattoo shop, surrounded by his boys and their “toys.”
“I used to have a regular sales job but I saw a lot of discrimination based on the colour of my skin,” he began. “My boss demoted me and I thought, fuck it, if they’re not gonna respect me I’m going back to the hood to join the gang. I passed my exams so I’m more educated than some of these guys —I can read, write and do math—so they made me manager.”
“My bodyguard”—he pointed to a big, lighter-skinned man with a machine gun, nicknamed “Portuguese Rambo”—“had lots of problems so he ran away from home. All of us have reasons for doing this. It’s not like we woke up one morning and decided we wanted to be drug dealers.”
As one of the more touristy favelas, Rocinha was ostensibly “pacified,” or brought under police control, in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. But if you were one of a handful of cops manning an outpost surrounded by hundreds of heavily-armed gang members, what would you do?
“We respect each other. We stay out of their business, they stay out of ours,” the boss said. “I’ve had many shootouts with BOPE [special forces] but the ordinary cops will never come here.”
“They wouldn’t dare,” he added, holding up an AR-15. “You see this? We’ve got three hundred of these.”
Red Command was born in the ‘70s, when guerrillas from the MR-8 and other leftist groups found themselves sharing cells with the general population in the Candido Mendes prison on the tropical island of Ilha Grande, Brazil’s Alcatraz. At first, the other residents looked down on the leftists as booksmart intellectuals, but they were quickly impressed by their ability to organize.
“We try to help out. The community here is more comfortable with us than with the cops.”
Comando Vermelho (CV) soon began holding up banks, which members termed “expropriations.” They didn’t end up doing much for the struggle, but robbing for the revolution was a tempting ideal for underprivileged youths, rapidly swelling their ranks. Then as Brazil liberalized in the ‘80s, cocaine emerged as a rapidly growing economic sector, and the favelas were the perfect place to capitalize: As unofficial squat settlements, they’d been long left to their own devices. More money meant more guns to protect it, and the cash-rich CV soon became difficult to distinguish from other criminal organizations. (Later, factions broke off to form ADA and Third Command.)
I grilled Rocinha’s gang members about their loss of class consciousness. They admitted being mostly about making money these days.
“At first people were scared because Comando Vermelho has the most fearsome reputation in the city, but now they accept us,” the leader said. “We try to help out, give free grocery bags to families who can’t afford it. Also medication. It’s a kind of favela welfare. The community here is more comfortable with us than with the cops.”
Yet it should be remembered that narco–rule also keeps neighbourhoods like Rocinha in fear. Gang members have been known to rape, torture and murder young women suspected of being informers or simply for having the wrong boyfriend. There’s even religious persecution: When Third Command’s boss found Christ, his men began violently trashing the shrines of Afro-Brazilian religions, like a kind of Latinx Taliban.
One night on the other side of the city, I was making my way home to the working-class neighbourhood where I stayed. I was in a taxi with the windows rolled up, so you couldn’t see who was inside.
Just as we pulled up to my house, a man, dressed all in black with a baseball cap, stepped out of the shadows, pointing a pistol in my direction and demanding something in Portuguese. We rolled down the windows and I put my hands up, saying, “Es to gringo, no falo Português” (“I’m a gringo, don’t speak Portuguese”). He laughed and let me through.
It was the second time I’d been held at gunpoint that month. But this man was no ordinary gang member or security guard. He was a member of Rio’s milicia.
“I remember when I was 16 walking home from school, when I saw them about to execute this guy with a gun to his head.”
Like the CV, the militias trace their origins to the dictatorship. In the 1960s, Rio’s military government tasked a police death squad to exterminate suspected criminals. Known as Scuderie Detetive le Cocq, or “the Shield of Detective le Cocq”, the squad was set up to avenge that detective after he was shot dead by crime boss Manoe “Horse Face” Moreira.
Moreira was operating an illegal lottery known as the “Animal Game.” Le Cocq’s colleagues found him and shot him 52 times. By the 1970s the Scuderie had thousands of members, led by detective Mariel Mariscot, who was himself later gunned down for his own involvement in an illegal lottery racket. One of the original members of the death squad was José Guilherme Godinho, who later became a state representative in Rio de Janeiro, campaigning under the slogan bandido bom é bandido morto—“a good bandit is a dead bandit.”
In São Paulo around that time, police chief Sérgio Fleury also authorized justiceiros to “clean up” the streets. The vigilantes mainly went after suspected criminals, but also used the same tactics on leftist militants like communist leader Carlos Marighella, who was assassinated in an operation orchestrated by Fleury. Between 1963-75, police death squads murdered nearly 900 people in Rio and São Paulo alone, more than twice the official death toll from political repression.
That accidentally helped boost organized crime. In 1982 Rio de Janeiro’s first well-meaning, freely-elected governor barred the police from going into the favelas, leaving the CV and their spin-offs in total control.
Vigilante groups remerged in the ‘90s—often consisting of off-duty cops, prison guards and firemen, vowing to clear their neighbourhoods of robbers and traffickers. Their mission soon expanded to include extortion.
So what’s it like to live in a milicia area?
“The milicia controlled this area since I was a kid,” said Melissa*, who lives in a working-class neighborhood in northern Rio. “The one good thing about living in a milicia area is you’ll never get robbed. The next street along, I don’t know.”
But that sense of safety comes at a heavy cost.
“I remember when I was 16 walking home from school, just around the corner from here, when I saw them about to execute this guy with a gun to his head,” Melissa continued. “I ran into a building site and the workers slammed the door behind me, and they had to keep giving me water because I wouldn’t stop crying. I don’t know who they killed but he was some kind of big shot, because all my friends were scared to go to school the next day.”
Bolsonaro got elected for a number of reasons, not least because of the perception that every other party was corrupt—a reason André of Rocinha gave for why he reluctantly voted for Bolsonaro. In conservative circles, there’s a distorted view that the dictatorship might have been morally corrupt in the sense of torturing and “disappearing” political opponents, but not corrupt in the “taking massive payoffs” sense. That’s obviously false, but cranky old men think it, so it must be true. Some older Brazilians talk about how it used to be safe to walk the streets at night.
Bolsonaro clearly sees himself as the junta’s heir. The ethos of the military rulers, who saw themselves as fighting the Cold War, was easily redirected at the drug war.
“These guys,” Bolsonaro said of the gangs, “are going to die in the streets like cockroaches, and that’s how it should be.”
Last year, heavily-armed police squads made their way through narrow, winding alleys on foot, firing indiscriminately.
Brazil’s drug war more closely resembles a traditional war than in other countries —with territories won and lost, and all sides openly brandishing automatic weapons. Bolsonaro—who claims that if he caught his son(s) partaking, “I would hit him, you can be sure of that”—has imposed the kind of polices you would expect. Together with his ally, ex-marine-turned judge and Rio Governor Wilson Witzel, he unleashed urban warfare.
Comparing the gangs occupying the Marvellous City’s slums to terrorists, Witzel ordered his officers to shoot on sight. The result was a bloodbath. Last year, heavily-armed police squads made their way through narrow, winding alleys on foot, firing indiscriminately.
Like any war, there was collateral damage. A young mother died from a stray bullet during a raid, holding her baby boy in her arms. Eight-year-old Ágatha Félix was shot in the back as she sat in a bus with her grandma. And 12-year-old Kauan Peixoto told his friend not to worry when he saw the men in uniform because he wasn’t a “bad guy.” Kauan was shot in the face and back. Last year, the cops killed a record 1,810 people—an average of five a day. As police helicopters, known as caveirão voador, or “flying skulls,” rained bullets from the sky, the children of one favela painted the roof of their school to say, “Don’t Shoot”.
According to a report by Brazilian news site UOL, all the fatal police operations that took place in Rio between January and June last year seemed to exclusively target areas run by drug traffickers—not the militias. It’s not hard to imagine why that would be. Unlike the boys in Rocinha, militiamen tend to be more middle-aged, middle-class and of a lighter complexion. They don’t even pretend to stick it to the Man; they are the Man.
Marielle Franco was an AOC-like figure: a popular, young, black councilwoman from the favelas who spoke out against police brutality. On the night of March 14, 2018, she was assassinated when a hitman drove up to her car and opened fire.
A poster of Marielle Franco in Lisbon, Portugal
The trail led to a milicia group called the Crime Bureau and the largest arms haul in Brazilian history: 117 assault rifles stashed in a safehouse to the north of Rio.
Two suspects were arrested, both ex-cops, which, their impressive arsenal aside, isn’t too surprising—Franco didn’t have many supporters in law enforcement. But then a few interesting facts begin to emerge. Like how one of them lived in the same apartment complex as Bolsonaro: They were literally neighbours. The suspect’s daughter was also dating Bolsonaro’s youngest son.
When another ex-cop—and Bolsonaro family driver for a decade—was sought for questioning over suspicious transactions in Bolsonaro’s wife’s account, he hid in Rio das Pedras, a favela controlled by the Crime Bureau.
Although there’s no evidence to indicate that Bolsonaro greenlit the hit, whoever did seems to move in the same circles.
What’s more, Bolsonaro’s oldest son Flávio, himself a politician in Rio’s assembly, kept on his office payroll the wife and mother of the Crime Bureau’s boss, on whom he once bestowed a prestigious award while the boss was being investigated for murder. You couldn’t make it up. Flávio was also the only lawmaker who voted against giving a medal, posthumously, to Marielle Franco.
That same death squad leader with ties to the ruling family was gunned down by police in February. Dead men tell no tales, as they say. Although there’s no evidence to indicate that Bolsonaro greenlit the hit on Franco, whoever did seems to move in the same circles.
Witzel has slowed down police operations during the pandemic, publicly clashing with Bolsonaro, who wants to go back to business-as-usual. While Bolsonaro holds rallies in defiance of his own health officials, whom he has fired, the CV, in contrast, has cancelled its weekly baile funk street parties—a huge source of income through sales of cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana.
A cocaine baggie in Rocinha
Although the gangs that control parts of Rio and other Brazilian cities are stepping in where the government has failed—either providing basic supplies, or, in the case of the milicias, “public safety”—all three sides have created a war zone, leaving local residents trapped in the middle.
Until a government is elected that actually addresses the social conditions behind the violence—including the legacy of dictatorship—gang handouts are the best many residents of Rocinha can get.
* Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities.
Top photo shows a view over Rio from Rocinha. All photographs by Niko Vorobyov.