Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas

“We’re alibis for them”: Gang leaders discuss the politics of fear, alienation, and vote buying in Rio de Janeiro’s poorest communities.

On October 7, Brazil will hold perhaps the most tumultuous election since its re-democratization three decades ago. The early leader in the polls, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was thrown in jail on controversial corruption charges in April; the current leader, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt last month; and the deep polarization that has permeated daily life has also produced interesting new political alliances. The country of 207 million must elect (through mandatory, universal voting) not only a new president, but 513 federal deputies, 54 senators, 27 governors, and more than 1,000 state representatives.

While much national attention has been given to understanding Bolsonaro voters, last month we sought out an influential, often ignored segment of the voting public: gang members. As we walked through the alleys of a favela — the poor and working-class communities that approximately 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents call home — a drug trafficker from the Pure Third Command gang asked us a striking question: “Do you believe in the government?”

The sentiments expressed by the residents of the favelas are reminiscent of a verse from the song “Candidate Liar, Liar” (“Candidato caô caô) by the original bad boy of samba, Bezerra da Silva, released shortly after Brazil’s re-democratization in 1988. Known for telling it straight, he sang:

He went up the hill without a tie

Saying he was one of us.

Went to the street stall

Drank cachaça

And even smoked a joint.

He ate at my house

And there he used

A jelly tin as a plate.

Quickly I realized

He was just another candidate

In the next election.

Bezerra died in 2005, but his words remain as relevant as ever: Across Brazil, the kingmakers in fine suits and too-white smiles make their pilgrimages to the forgotten urban peripheries every four years asking for votes. And then they disappear. We had to ask permission to record in the favelas, but the decision-makers were not those sitting in City Hall or the governor’s mansion; it was the drug traffickers who oversee the day-to-day functioning of those areas. Drug traffickers dominate entire swaths of Rio and Brazil, making them important political actors who must be heard during this tense national moment, when poverty, unemployment, and security are on the tips of the tongues of every candidate. These themes are most visceral outside the wealthy, urban cores, in the “rest” of the country, where tourists and the privileged rarely step foot. Yet while major newspapers and TV news broadcasters regularly produce flashy headlines about violence and crime, most refuse to even utter the names of these powerful gangs, arguing that that would legitimate the power they already possess.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the entire public security apparatus was literally handed over to the military in February — an unprecedented response to the rising sense of insecurity. But the results have been trifling. Disputes between traffickers, militias, and police dictate the pace of much of the city, closing schools, stopping highways, and killing as never before. Despite the extraordinary cost of military intervention, residents of the capital’s greater metropolitan area endure an average of 27 episodes of gunfire every day, a significant increase from the 2017 average of 16.

So what is the electoral process from the point of view of the two largest factions in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, and how do they participate? As José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book “From Barons to Extermination: The History of Violence” in the Baixada Fluminense, notes, gangs are “not a parallel power” as is commonly claimed — they are a functional “part of the legally constituted power” structures.

Click on the video at the top of this post to watch members of this powerful bloc explain for themselves.

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