Feature Articles

September 2013
Favela Drug Trafficking

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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FAVELA: Origin 1945-1950. Brazilian-Portuguese name given to a hill near Brazil's Rio de Janeiro where shanty towns were first built. Brazil in the 1950s was 85% rural, 15% urban; today it is 87% urban. Drug gangs are called traficantes .Of Rio's 6.3 million people, 1.4 million live in favelas. They number more than 630. Since 2008, thirty of the largest have been pacified (under police protection) and no longer controlled by drug dealers or militias (corrupt police). Gang members number some thirty to fifty thousand. Each year as many as fifty cops and around 1500 traffickers are killed. Drugs of choice include ecstasy, PCP and crystal meth, coming in from Europe.

     The notorious slums, which are cut off from city services, are dense pockets populated over the decades by impoverished migrants from the rural countryside. These are people when went from rural poverty to urban poverty without the prerequisites for assimilating into the modern economy. They are the dispossessed in both worlds. As a consequence, the favelas have become classic breeding grounds for despair, disease, crime, corruption and most of all entrenched organized crime. One major gang, Comando Vermelho (Red Command) was organized in 1979 in a Brazilian prison. Another, Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends), an offshoot of the above, controls a very lucrative cocaine distribution network sanctuary within the wandering, foul and easily defended alleyways of its home base.

     On a recent visit to the favelas, a local investigative reporter described his impressions: "Squeezed between two mountain peaks, thousands of brick and concrete hovels were stacked like Lego bricks up the hills. Motorcycle taxis, the main form of transport, clogged the main street. The drivers are tightly controlled by Amigos dos Amigos gangsters who would receive as tribute a sizeable percentage of each driver's income. The inhabitants live on very little; it's a subsistence existence. Unemployment is chronic, illiteracy is high and educational opportunities are minimal. The stench of the raw sewage, mixed with the smells of fried foods is overpowering." The metaphor of poverty is the stink of latrines.

     The gangs' continuing stranglehold on the slum communities required that cash flow to police commanders and politicians; the bribe being the essential ingredient to gang endurance. The loyalty of the favelas' residents was insured by sponsoring several events, albeit such community gatherings did little to improve anyone's life chances. Middle-class high rise apartment complexes within sight of the favelas dramatically emphasized the radical social distances that split the city; one marginal, the other fully integrated into the sophisticated urban world. The favelas had their own cultures, their own systems of justice, their own codes of conduct. As one example, if a husband hit his wife, the local "slum enforcers" would beat him. If he persisted in deviating from the norm, his life would be forfeited.

     In 2002, a Brazilian journalist entered one of the favelas to poke around for a story and to document through filming the cocaine business and gang weaponry. Once his motives were discovered, he was tied to a tree, limbs severed with a sword and then burned alive. His horrific demise came to symbolize the extreme depravity of the narcotic dealers.

     His death and other publicized atrocities forced the government, in 2008, to cease its usual halfhearted measures. The military was called to arms to conduct full bore assaults into the heart of the traffickers' domains. Favelas were secured and a police pacification plan put into place. An armed presence was instituted on every corner of every alley. Yet, the gangs were not to be denied: war broke out; and casualties mounted. In one incident, a large squad of cops and soldiers invaded the holy ground of Complexo do Alemao, gunning down at least two dozen gangsters after several days of intense street combat.

     Next on the agenda was the Rocinha favela where various redevelopment projects had failed to stop the flow of narcotics. Comanda Vermelho and the Amigos contested the territory. The former controlled the upper half of the favela and the Amigos the lower portion. War broke out in April of 2004 during which fifteen civilians and gunmen died. The police entered the fray. The fight ended with the death of one of the drug lords. His funeral, in traditional gangster fashion, was an event.

     The Amigos won the territory. From the ashes of combat rose a flamboyant cocaine kingpin nicknamed Bem-te-vi (after a colorful Brazilian bird). He acquired the stereotypical mobster profile: a flashy and vulgar nouveau riche persona, known for his bling, his two strapped on silver pistols, and his celebrated street parties that stretched till dawn.

      Su Ketu Mehta, a reporter, was escorted to one of those parties, called a baile funk: "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 until eight in the morning."

     The Bird's popularity was apparent both among the denizens of the favelas and among metro celebrities. The authorities were not amused. The police dispatched him in 2005. He was replaced by Antonio Bonfim, known as Nem. He was equally flamboyant, sporting Armani suits, and raking in millions from cocaine sales. Nem offered favela employment opportunities such as hiring middle-aged women to process and package the illicit product. Nem became the local "ward healer," the man to go to for jobs, education, to settle a beef, to corrupt an official. His many admirers insisted that his motives were misunderstood: He was not a drug peddler, went the argument, he was an administrator. There were bigger criminals running around-politicians and big businessmen-and they were not being arrested. The police hunt was on for Nem when he went on the lam. On a tip from a squealer, the police opened the trunk of a car owned by a diplomat from Congo. Inside was the sheepish spectacle of a defeated Nem.

     In 2012, legislation was passed requiring the policing of the favelas for a period of twenty-five years. Is the trafficking on its way to being crushed? Some Amigos dos Amigos graffiti on shanty walls includes this: "DON'T WORRY, WE'LL BE BACK"


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