Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

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There is something about the population of the favelas of Rio and their special social situation as subordinate people in an oppressive social order that makes them seek for, and indeed find, leadership among the criminals who live there. To begin with, the characterization of the drug traffickers as some sort of wily tricksters who can pull the wool over the eyes of the police, beat the system, and defend people in favelas seems to me to make sense as a subaltern survival strategy. Furthermore, by proclaiming the criminals as protectors the population has engaged in the practice of “making do” that John Fisk talks about in his model of the workings of popular culture. This is the way people from subordinate groups tend to construct their strategies of resistance and survival through a process of expropriating and reinterpreting images and ideas made available to them through the mechanisms of the social control of the dominant order. In this sense, seeing the drug trafficker as a social bandit can be viewed as a creative act, not just on the part of composers of funk songs, but by any resident who interprets them in this way. I believe there is a utopian edge to this creative process, and certainly if we look back on the categories proposed by Dyer for understanding such practices, almost all of the utopian urges he pointed out are fully realized in the figure of the drug trafficker. In a world of scarcity, exhaustion, dreariness, manipulation and fragmentation, who better to represent the dream of abundance, energy, intensity, transparency and even community than the figure of the drug trafficker of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro?

In addition to understanding such an oppositional reading of the drug traffickers and their role in society as stemming from the utopian urges of subordinate groups in general, it seems to me that there is something else about this view that relates specifically to favela communities in Rio de Janeiro. Unlike the figures in a Hollywood musical, or a TV broadcast of a “novela” soap opera, the “heroes” of the Comando Vermelho are not seen by the residents of the favela as idealized characters who are impossibly removed from them in a fictionalized world. Instead, drug traffickers are people like others in the community; they didn’t start with the advantage of being richer, more intelligent, more physically attractive or more athletic than anyone else. If any person in the favela, and particularly young people, is willing to pay the price of giving up everything else, like their standing in the community and the hope of being normal and having a long life, he or she can join the traffickers. This is not to say that the idea of becoming a drug trafficker or of having one’s children get involved with organized crime in the favelas is not often people’s worst nightmare. But there is an ambiguously utopian side to this fear in the awareness that if a person were ever to go over the edge, he or she could join the community of the gang and live one day at a time free from the inadequacies of poverty in a world of energy and intensity. Such aspirations are not very realistic, especially when one looks at the statistics about just how many people in drug trafficking die violent deaths and go to prison. Nevertheless, in the utopianism of the favela, awareness that one could join the gang carries with it a grain of hope in the possibility that one could be transformed into a powerful warrior, a favela star, or even a legend.

Funk after Tim Lopes and “Literature of the Marginalized”

In 2003, the year following the infamous murder of Tim Lopes, the chain of events triggered by his death led to a critical level of tensions between the Brazilian government and organized crime. As a result of his death, invasions by the police of favelas across Rio increased, especially those controlled by the Comando Vermelho, Elias Maluco was captured and charged with giving the orders to torture and kill Lopes, and the gang in Rocinha decided to suspend funk dances in the streets of the favela. By way of a counter-attack, a series of small-scale terrorist acts was ordered from within Rio’s Bangu 1 maximum security prison by leaders of the CV. Authorities linked Fernandinho Beira-Mar, the arms dealer and drug trafficker with ties to the FARC in Colombia and imprisoned in Bangu 1, to a series of guerrilla-style attacks across Rio de Janeiro. In June of 2002, City Hall was raked with machine gun fire and a bomb was thrown at the Rio Sul shopping mall. Shortly after, the CV staged a daring prison uprising in which they took control of Bangu 1and assassinated important leaders of a rival criminal faction, the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA). In January 2003, Fernandinho Beira-Mar was temporarily transferred to a maximum-security prison in Presidente Prudente, São Paulo. The prison’s warden immediately denied his lawyer’s request that the crime boss be granted special meals and privileges. The lawyer also demanded that he be returned to Rio so he could be close to his family, actually arguing that imprisoning the drug trafficker in São Paulo was “disciplinary.”

In February of 2003, several buses were burnt in the rich Zona Sul area of Rio and one elderly woman died in the fire. In March, Fernandinho Beira-Mar was transferred to a federal prison in Maceió, Alagoas. One of his allies in the CV, known as Sombra, or “Shadow”, was arrested in a massive police invasion of the favela of Rocinha, an incursion which lasted three days and was made up of units from military, civil and federal police, including ground and helicopter sniper support. They claimed that Rocinha was the base of operations for Fernandinho Beira-Mar’s cartel, that weapons provided by the FARC in Colombia (where he had been arrested) were coming into the city via Rocinha and that FARC specialists in guerrilla tactics were training members of the CV there. Furthermore, Sombra was accused of being responsible for the February bus burnings. A general order was issued to break down any doors that did not open of whatever houses the police wanted to search. As a result of the operation, Sombra was arrested along with a Chilean known as “Gringo,” accused of training members of the CV in guerrilla tactics. On Sunday, March 30, the story was run as the cover story of the Rio newspaper Extra, “Rocinha: base do cartel no Rio- Inteligência da polícia conclui que a favela é o entreposto do narcotráfico da Colômbia na cidade.” (Xavier)1 Interestingly enough, the article overshadowed a smaller cover story about the eleven day-old war of the US against Iraq. In the photo accompanying the article, Police are shown tearing down the wall of a house in Rocinha on which the words “Território CV Colombiano FARC” were written in graffiti. Unfortunately, Sombra’s arrest did not put an end to the guerrilla activities of the CV and days after, in the middle of the night, more buses and a passerby’s car were burnt along Avenida Brasil, a bomb was exploded at the metro station and another next to the five-star Meridien Hotel in Copacabana. The relatively low number of casualties in the CV’s terrorist campaign and its largely theatrical nature have led some to speculate that it has been intended as a means to force the state and its agents to go back to turning a blind eye on organized crime, both in Rio’s prisons and on the city’s streets, to a similar degree as before the Tim Lopes scandal.2

As relevant as the study of drug traffickers and the way they are perceived by the populations of Rio’s favelas might be in the wake of the Tim Lopes murder and the subsequent crisis between the state and organized crime, the climate of violence in Rio de Janeiro is by no means new and in fact has characterized the city for the past few decades. Over this time span, there has also been an increasing number of books, movies and studies about favelas, prisons and crime in Rio and about problems of social exclusion in Brazil more generally. Many of these works are very poignant and inspired and help draw attention to problems of violence and crime in Brazil. Some also make it a point to show that there is more to the lives of people in favelas than gunfights, prisons and cadavers. Others are not so successful at this and instead end up representing poverty through facile stereotypes that ultimately render an attempt at social commentary into something of an instrument of the very prejudice it seeks to combat. A crop of non-fiction best sellers about crime in Rio has sprung up in recent years, some good, like Cidade partida, mentioned several times throughout this study, some rather hollow and sensationalist, such as Narcoditadura: O caso Tim Lopes, crime organizado e o jornalismo investigativo no Brasil. Non-fiction and semi-non-fiction books about prisons have also appeared, such as Estação Carandiru, Caldeirão do Diabo and Quatrocentos contra um: Uma história do Comando Vermelho, by William da Silva Lima. Many fictional works of various calibers about the world of crime and favelas have also been published, such as Paulo Lins’ enormously popular novel Cidade de Deus, Júlio Ludemir’s Meu coração no Comando, Ferréz’s Capão Pecado and Inferno, by Partícia Melo. Also, a special issue of the excellent social and political magazine, Caros amigos, was dedicated to what it called “Literatura do marginalizado,” or literature of people on the “margins,” giving space to a variety of disadvantaged poets and short story writers, many of whom are in prison. In addition, two of the most important Brazilian films of the last three years, Cidade de Deus and Carandiru, have highlighted the question of crime and violence in social exclusion, and have won both national and international recognition. Even the ingenious comedy Cidade dos homens, produced as a mini-series counterpart to the violent Cidade de Deus by the Globo network, does not stray far from the existence of the drug traffickers and their control of the favelas. In addition, the gloomy periphery/prison style hip-hop of artists like MV Bill and 509-E has become so popular among middle-class youth that Mano Brown, of Racionais MCs, recently refused to perform at a show in Rio because it was filled with “playboyzada,” which roughly translates as “a bunch of little rich boys.”

I see my own study here as a part of this growing culture of literature of marginalized people in Brazil and the accompanying trend of the social sciences to investigate the reality of communities on the periphery of Brazilian society. I have attempted not to overemphasize the importance or presence of violence and drug traffickers in the community while at the same time recognizing the fact that such things do make up a rather big part of the social landscape of the favela. In any event, without wishing to further sensationalize the issue or suggest that funk is the key to understanding everything about the complex socio-political terrain of Rio de Janeiro, I hope this study has been able to offer some relevant perspectives about the relationship between bandits, favelas and the culture of funk music. It has been a labor of love and the product of some rather special circumstances, circumstances I would be unlikely to ever reproduce with any other subject matter. As I sat and wrote about funk music in my house in Rocinha, I was often accompanied by some very loud noises. The neighbors’ five dogs ceaselessly barked beneath my window, police helicopters regularly circled overhead, funk, forró and rock music blared from the bar across the alleyway, or young gangsters would let loose non-stop barrages of firecrackers. Despite all this noise, and my awareness of all the serious problems it faces, I have come to love the community of Rocinha in the years since 1990. I have also come to love funk, through all the phases of its evolution, which like other social realities in Rio hasn’t really changed very much since Tom Lopes. I honestly don’t think too many funkeiros or other residents will ever read this study that they have helped me to write, but it is my hope that I have managed at least to make some useful social commentary about their lives without worsening outside perceptions of their world. I also hope that I have been able to let the light and the love that so many of them have shared with me shine through these pages.

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