The Governor of Rio de Janeiro, Luiz Fernando Pezão, admitted that his administration could no longer cope on Friday as he requested the assistance of the Brazilian military to help bring the situation in Rocinha, one of the city’s largest favela, under control. Hours later, some 950 heavily-armed soldiers dramatically descended on the favela on foot and in armored personnel carriers and helicopters.
Rio de Janeiro is once more making the headlines for the wrong reasons. Homicidal violence is back in the city with a vengeance. Shooting broke out Rocinha in earlier this month less than a week after a gun battle between rival factions of the same drug gang, ADA or Friends of Friends, disturbed a peaceful Sunday morning in the seaside neighborhood.
The drama in Rocinha came hard on the heels of a battle for control of the favela, Juramento, between members of ADA and those from the largest gang, Red Command or CV. Seven were killed in that confrontation.
On Friday, reports of shooting incidents were coming in from several favelas. But the opening of hostilities in both Rocinha and in Santa Marta in the posh district of Botafogo symbolize the deepening crisis in Rio de Janeiro. These two have long been regarded as the safest and least violent favelas in the city.
Home to some 100,000 people, Rocinha is probably the most famous slum in Brazil. The favela sits nestled between three of the wealthiest residential areas of the city, so when the shooting starts in Rocinha, the national and international media sit up and pay attention. This was assisted by some dramatic mobile phone footage of the fighting and some gruesome photographs of the aftermath, including the mostly-incinerated body of one member of the defeated faction.
The immediate cause of violence is the ongoing struggle between and now within factions. But the origins are much deeper and more complex than this. The events are a dangerous signal that Rio could be sinking back into the quagmire of instability and violence that characterized the city in the 1990s and early 2000s. The war on drugs remains a powerful underlying cause as does the violent struggle between Rio’s largest drug gang, the CV, and Brazil’s largest organized crime syndicate, the PCC, based in São Paulo but with influence stretching across the country and into Paraguay, Bolivia and Colombia. Probably the mightiest driver of Rio’s problems remains the monumental political and economic crises that plague all Brazil but reserve a special ire for Rio.
If there is trouble in Rocinha, there is a guarantee of even greater problems elsewhere.
Rocinha is also an important bellwether because, over the past thirteen years, not only has the community boasted levels of violence and crime well below the Rio average, it has one of the most robust and successful economies among the favelas — gringos occasionally refer to it as the Upper East Side or Kensington of the favelas. If there is trouble in Rocinha, there is a guarantee of even greater problems elsewhere.
The first reports of what was happening in Rocinha were based almost exclusively on police and prison sources. This claimed that there was a power struggle at the very top of the ADA organization in Rocinha. It’s a complex business because the so-called “Don” of Rocinha, Antonio Bomfim Lopes, known to all as Nem of Rocinha, has been in jail since November 2011. According to police, Nem continues to rule the favela and its lucrative cocaine trade by proxy. Since his arrest, the other key figure in Rocinha has been Nem’s erstwhile head of security, Rogério Avelino da Silva, known as Rogério 157.
But over the past eighteen months, residents of Rocinha have reported to me in conversations that serious divisions have emerged between Rogério and other members of ADA who support Nem. Perhaps the most controversial figure in all this is Nem’s wife, Danubia Rangel de Souza, who has in recent months been flexing her muscles in the cocaine trade in her own right in Rocinha. Both she and her husband were arrested on charges that she was working as his go-between with ADA in 2013, but police later dropped these for lack of evidence.
It is also important to remember that Nem denies any involvement with the violence. Speaking through Luiz Battaglin, one of his lawyers who visited him this week, Nem said he had nothing to do with the shooting and that he had had no meetings with his family in recent weeks so he could not possibly have directed the violence. Nonetheless, in Rocinha itself few people believe that Nem is without influence in the favela. He is still regarded by many as its spiritual boss and there exists considerable nostalgia for his rule.
According to one Rocinha source with inside knowledge of ADA, Danubia struck up an alliance with Perninha, Nem’s former right-hand man, and the two demanded to take control over two of Rocinha’s drugs outlets. The same sources says that both Rogério and Nem refused to sanction this. Apparently, Nem did not want his wife directly involved in the drug trade. Nonetheless, Perninha and Danubia went ahead anyhow.
In mid-August, the bodies of Perninha and two other Nem loyalists were found in a car on the main road which runs through the favela. Police and residents alike maintain that Perninha and his two colleagues died at Rogério’s hand. One well-informed resident told me this week, “the events of August 13th amounted to an open declaration of war on Nem’s authority.” (Most Rocinha residents are extremely reluctant to talk about the events as traditionally informants face summary execution. Because of the ongoing power struggle, people are especially sensitive).
In the meanwhile, Danubia put together her own security detail. She started moving around the favela with four armed men. Earlier this month, Nem sent a message to Rogério ordering him to hand over control of a small satellite favela to two Nem loyalists. This didn’t happen and the loyalists fled. Nem is then said to have warned Danubia to flee Rocinha as well.
Whether Nem was directly issuing orders is difficult to say. It is certainly a mystery how he might have done it given that during all these events he didn’t receive visits at the federal maximum security prison where he currently resides. So how was he sending messages?
Nonetheless, Danubia did leave Rocinha and three days later an astonishing force of some sixty gang members entered the favela, attacking from the entry at the bottom of the Two Brothers’ Mountain before it starts winding its way up the hill. After three hours of intense shooting, three men were left dead and three residents were wounded, including two adolescents one of whom was mentally disabled. The police reportedly knew about the planned attack days in advance, but did nothing to prevent it. The end came when some of Rogério’s men hijacked a car and fled the favela as policeman watched on, a moment captured on cellphone video. Rogério himself hid in the thick forest that surrounds Rocinha to the west and the north. Some of his men tried to reach another favela on Sunday but were stopped by police. Three died in subsequent shootouts and one was arrested.
Whether this is the end of the “coup” as it is being referred to in the Brazilian press is harder to say. Danubia, Nem’s wife, remains in her home, a vast agglomeration of favelas, the Complex of Maré, under the protection of ADA allies. However, she is a most unlikely successor to Rogério in Rocinha. She is an outsider, having been born and raised on the other side of Rio; many in Rocinha have not taken to her regal aspirations and Barbie-style looks; and, above all, she is a woman – traditionally, women play an extremely subordinate role in Rio’s drug gangs. So, if she were to become the point person for Nem’s regime, she has real vulnerabilities.
Rogério, although damaged, has options. Over the weekend, supporters of ADA’s great rivals, Comando Vermelho, broadcast messages saying that Rogério’s supporters should be welcomed in CV favelas, a strong indication that Rogério himself has made the momentous decision to switch factions. However, Rogério’s greatest problem is that resistance to his rule inside Rocinha has been hardening since he imposed a harsh tax regime on the distribution of gas canisters and on motorbike taxis, an essential transport form to get up and down Rocinha’s steep hill.
Rio’s drug trade has long been divided among three factions: CV Comando Vermelho (Red Command), TCP Terceiro Comando Puro (The Real Third Command) and ADA Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends). Each faction controls specific favelas from where they organize the sale of cocaine which is distributed among the many users within the favelas as well in the middle-class areas. The graffiti in any individual favela (of which they are some 1,200 in Rio) quickly identifies which faction is in control there. TCP has in the past shifted its alliance between CV and ADA, but the hostility between the latter two has been constant and implacable since the mid-1990s.
CV historically maintained links with drug traffickers in Colombia and engaged in some wholesale import trade. ADA and TCP were strictly local Rio retail operations. The other big importer into Brazil from the Andean countries is the PCC, the giant Sao Paulo organized crime syndicate. Although the PCC runs the cocaine trade in most states of this vast country, it has never involved itself in Rio retail operations, partly because the hostility between the three factions is simply too risky. “The PCC took one look at this place,” a police intelligence officer told me, “and said ‘No thank you…we don’t want to involve ourselves in that mess!’”
But in the winter of 2015, when the FARC were leaving the coke game in Colombia as the consequence of the peace deal brokered with the Colombian government, a bitter struggle broke out between the PCC and CV. In prisons housing both PCC and CV supporters, this led to the most unspeakable violence and the death of dozens of men. Part of the PCC’s response was to end its neutrality in Rio by supplying the TCP and ADA with weapons in order to strengthen them against the numerically superior CV. Furthermore, the PCC has for the first time contested the CV in open battle for control of Paraty, a town that sits halfway along the coast between Rio and São Paulo and which is better known for its annual international book festival. The PCC is aiming to take control of the main cocaine supply routes into Rio to throttle the CV: this is a proper low-level war that is taking place inside Brazil with tactical and strategic aims aplenty.
It is this division which Rogério might choose to exploit and request “military” assistance from the CV in order to attempt to re-take Rocinha. For the sake of peace in the South Zone of Rio, one can only hope that the CV decide it not worth the candle as Rocinha is a very difficult territory to attack successfully.
At the beginning of 2008, Rio’s newly appointed Secretary of State for Security, José Mariano Beltrame, a Federal Police Officer from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, announced an innovative policy – the UPP, or Pacification Police Units. Genuinely contrite, Beltrame believed that the authorities had betrayed the favelas of the city, which are home to 20% of the population, for not have provided security and other services for over half a century. With pacification, he claimed, Beltrame sought to make amends.
His idea wasn’t bad: flush out the drug gangs from the favelas and deploy a significant police presence within these territories. This idea was known as the UPP Policial but it was designed to be bolstered by another policy, the UPP Social, which would see investment into health, education, infrastructural and social services. The UPP Policial had some real success and violence levels were reduced. The sale of drugs did not end, but the heavy weaponry circulating in the favelas really did come down.
Unfortunately, despite repeated requests from Beltrame, the administration of Rio’s then Governor, Sergio Cabral, failed to deliver the funding for the UPP Social – there was no follow up, a critical failing of the UPPs as a whole. As we now know, Cabral was corrupt (most Rio residents knew it at the time, but the culture of complete impunity and lack of accountability still ruled the roost in the pre-Olympic period) and his motivation for promoting the UPP was primarily to shore up his middle-class voting base in Rio and present a picture of calm to the outside world as the city prepared to host the Olympics.
In Rocinha, the reputation of the UPP suffered a specific blow in July 2013 when it emerged that officers of the UPP police force stationed in the favela tortured and murdered an unemployed brick layer, Amarildo, despite the man having no relationship to any crime. Beltrame acted swiftly by bringing the main perpetrators to justice but in retrospect, the UPP never really recovered from this incident that garnered international attention.
Beltrame resigned as Secretary of State for Security in 2016, disillusioned by the lack of support in government for his strategy and aware that after the Olympics, the city’s economy was failing. Since then, the UPP has only existed in name. The gangs are largely back in control and the police still stationed there avoid confrontation if they possibly can.
In late July, the Federal government deployed 10,000 troops to Rio at the governor’s request to help restore Rio’s deteriorating security situation.
Last October, the state of Rio appealed for federal assistance of some US$4.5 billion as it was defaulting on payments to its law enforcement officers, teachers and medical workers. The city and its surrounding state is being kept afloat by subsidies after several years of dreadful mismanagement and corruption under the administration of the Party of the Movement for a Democrat Brazil (PMDB) (embattled President Michel Temer is also from the PMDB). Several key figures in Rio have since been arrested or imprisoned for corruption as part of the huge federal investigation known as Operation Car Wash.
The new governor, Luis Fernando Pezão, who was deputy to Cabral under the last administration, is recovering from cancer and increasingly unable to manage the state’s disastrous public finances. The newly-elected mayor of Rio City, Marcelo Crivella, is a bishop of the power-hungry Evangelical sect, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, whose administration is woefully unable to deal with the challenges it faces.
Pezão’s decision to request assistance from the Brazilian military to deal with drug gangs is on one level an admission of political bankruptcy. But there is another aspect to this. Even six months ago, few people seriously believed that the Armed Forces, which ran the country for 21 years after a coup in 1964, might consider interfering with the democratic order. Now, however, some of the Army’s most senior officers have been wondering aloud whether the Armed Forces may have to step in at some point and declare a state of emergency. The polarization of political sentiment in Brazil, already very obvious, is sharpening once again. It seems highly unlikely that a federal government run by a president who is entirely discredited and himself under investigation will have any good solutions to this problem.
Misha Glenny is the author of Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio’s Biggest Slum.