Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk


Tim Lopes and Proibidão Funk



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Tim Lopes and Proibidão Funk


Somos Vermelho até o osso, é paz, justiça e liberdade,

Eu tô trepado até o pescoço, e o bonde está demais,

Por isso a gente é fé em Deus e o comando cresce mais

Aqui quem sabe é nós se caia chuva ou faça sol



Defendo a favela nem se for a vida inteira 4

In June of 2002, events occurred in Rio de Janeiro that brought funk music and the so-called “parallel State” of the drug traffickers in their favelas to the forefront of the Brazilian political scene. On June 2, 2002, Tim Lopes, an award winning reporter for Globo TV network, went to secretly film scenes of minors having sex for pay and the sale of drugs in a funk dance in the favela of Vila Cruzeiro, in the Penha neighborhood of Rio. Of the 741 favelas throughout the city, Vila Cruzeiro is one of fifteen the police classified in 2002 as inaccessible, like Rocinha, Turano, Adaraí and the Complexo do Alemão, and only elite police troops like the Batalhão de Operações Especiais (BOPE) of the Polícia Militar and the Coordenadoria de Recursos Especiais (CORE) of the Polícia Civil go there.(Araújo) Tragically, members of the favela’s drug gang, run by crime boss Elias Maluco, discovered Tim Lopes at the dance, tortured and killed him. Tim Lopes’ murder touched a nerve in Brazil, a country in the grip of a longstanding crisis of violence, and sparked a city-wide debate among journalists, intellectuals and politicians about what some called the guerra contra o tráfico, or the “war on drug trafficking.”5 In the weeks following Lopes’ murder, a media blitz ensued, protest marches were organized, police surrounded and invaded Vila Cruzeiro and several other favelas, many other community funk dances were suspended and thousands of pirated funk CDs confiscated.6 Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso declared an attitude of “zero tolerance” towards the drug traffickers and Rio mayor César Maia appealed to the federal government that a “state of defense” be declared in the city.(Dantas) These occurrences showed the deep level of frustration felt by many people in the face of the rampant violence that has characterized Rio over the past two decades. They also re-energized the debate about the relationship of funk music to violence, and about the relationship of the drug traffickers to the state.

Throughout the eighties and nineties to the present, questions about funk, favelas and the nature of organized crime have been treated from a variety of insightful perspectives both in Brazil and internationally. Typically, studies on violence in funk have tended to focus more on a practice known as the “corridor of death,” semi-ritualized fights that occur in some funk dances and have resulted in the injury and even death of many participants. This practice, first studied by Hermanno Vianna in his pioneer work on funk in 1988, has diminished significantly as funk has evolved over the years. Another connection of funk to violence was suggested by George Yúdice in his study “The Funkification of Rio” in which he attempts to link the culture of funk and the arrastão attacks of October of 1993 in which gangs of poor youths ran along the beaches and streets of the Copacabana and Arpoador harassing and mugging passersby. Funk music itself began to take up the theme of violence as lyrics in Portuguese became more common in the early to mid-nineties and a movement occurred within the funk community to stop fighting at the dances. When, also in 1994, Zuenir Ventura wrote his seminal book on the problem of violence and social exclusion in Rio, Cidade partida, after the infamous massacre in Vigário Geral, he portrayed funk artists as something of an alternative intellectual community from favelas and other poor neighborhoods in Rio engaged in a form of social protest. However accurate that might have been, the content of funk lyrics continued to evolve and by the time Tim Lopes went to the favela of Vila Cruzeiro there was a new spin on violence prevalent in funk that was very different from both the gang fights of the “corridor of death” and the social protest of earlier funk lyrics. By 2002, a form of funk music was firmly entrenched known as proibidão, a movement of underground songs about the power and activities of organized crime which are sung live at funk dances in favelas or available on bootleg recordings of these shows.7

In addition to studies of violence in funk, a rich tradition of research exists amongst of political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists both within Brazil and abroad about the other aspects of the nature of favelas and drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro. One of the most well respected is Alba Zaluar, who will be discussed in more detail below. She is an anthropologist from the Univerisdade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro who has been researching and publishing on crime and favelas since the early eighties. Other Brazilian specialists in the area include Gilberto Velho, Marcos Alvito, and Luiz Eduardo Soares, who have all produced important anthologies on various aspects of crime, poverty and citizenship in Rio. Elaine Junqueira, a law professor at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio, and her husband José Augusto Rodrigues, a political scientist at UERJ, have also written and lectured extensively on the issue, as has one of the founders of the Viva Rio NGO, Rúbem César Fernandes. In addition, some well known journalists have written on crime and social exclusion in Rio, with varying degrees of success. Zuenir Ventura’s 1994 book Cidade partida, which presented the world of crime and favelas in clear, accessible Portuguese and eloquently made the case that social exclusion, considered by Ventura to be the root of violence in the city, was worsening. Júlio Ludemir’s forthcoming work on Rocinha and his historical novel Meu coração no comando are also examples of works that are very well grounded in research in the favelas and prisons of Rio. Other attempts by journalists have not produced such high quality work. For example, Percival de Souza’s Narcoditadura: o caso Tim Lopes, crime organizado e jornalismo investigativo no Brasil on the lists of best-sellers in 2003, sold well despite little academic rigor or factual merit.

In addition, many scholars from outside of Brazil have been drawn to the topic of crime and the social organization of favelas. Elizabeth Leeds’ 1996 article “Cocaine and Parallel Polities on the Brazilian Urban Periphery: Constraints on Local Level Democratization” has become a standard reference for the analysis of crime in Rio. More recent scholarship has been done by sociologist Corrine Davis-Rodrigues, who defended an interesting dissertation in 2002 on the mechanisms of conflict resolution in the favela of Rocinha. In addition to providing a series of case studies on which residents went to the drug traffickers versus other mediating groups, such as the Neighbor’s Association (AM), the Balcão de Direitos of the Viva Rio NGO or the governmental Região Administrative located in Rocinha, her works also provides a very good history of that community. Also, Enrique Desmond Arias’ 2001 study “Crime, Violence, and Democracy: The State and Political Order in Brazilian Shantytowns” offers a sophisticated understanding of political life on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro and argues in favor of Local Associative Networks(LANS) in the democratization of favelas. In the following passage from the introductory chapter of his dissertation, Arias describes the complexities of the socio-political terrain of the favela with an admirable economy of words. It will serve as a useful introduction to the intricacies of social life and crime in the favelas and is therefore worth quoting the passage in its entirety:

Rio’s favelas today experience a complex political and legal pluralism in which different organizations enforce order over different aspects of life. No longer are AMs (Neighbors’ Associations) the primary leaders of communities. Rather, drug traffickers, AMs, religious groups and other social organizations all participate in the leadership of favelas. Relationships between these organizations, needless to say, are in a near constant state of flux as communities grow and state policies change. There is a general agreement among residents that certain types of violence, such as rape and theft, are not acceptable within the favela. If drug traffickers are well organized and have good relations with the community, they will be able to swiftly punish behavior that violates these rules. If traffickers are weak, violations of these norms will be more common. Most favelas in Rio are still formally administered by an AM, which is registered with the state and the FAFERJ (Federação de Associações de Favelas do Estado do Rio de Janeiro). The leaders of AMs are supposed to be subject to regular election. In practice, however, elections are often meaningless since there is usually only one candidate who, with the support of the drug traffickers, is willing to take office. Though AMs are responsible for relations with the state, administer property transfers, and resolve disputes between residents, much of the real power in the favelas lies in the hands of traffickers. With a limited monopoly on the means of violence, they work to enforce order and often resolve disputes between residents. NGO’s and religious organizations also play a prominent role in favela life in building consensus among residents and in working to improve the community. Finally, different state agencies have different roles within the favelas. The state does not act as the unified, coherent bureaucracy in favelas, but is rather fragmented. While its agents in the favelas have the physical and financial means to make and enforce decisions which can change favela life in fundamental ways, they act independently and their activities often contradict each other. This serves to undermine government policies. In addition, many of these state agents are corrupt and actively use their influence to undermine government directives and work to protect drug traffickers and other criminals. (Arias, 23-24)

What I like about this description of the politics of favelas is that it strikes a careful balance between acknowledging the power of drug traffickers within their communities and recognizing the importance of other actors in the leadership of the favelas. This is important because it emphasizes the limits of the authority of the drug traffickers and thus moves beyond the sort of “narcodictatorship” type model often suggested by other analysts. While Arias is realistic about the dependence of the neighbors’associations upon the support of the traffickers in many cases, he makes it clear that organized crime operates within a framework of the expectations of community residents and that the success of these gangsters is very directly dependent upon the satisfaction of the local population according to certain norms. This is important for my argument because I see the practice of proibidão funk as a symbolic site in which these expectations are both articulated and mediated.

Unfortunately, the media treatment of the conflict between organized crime and the state in Rio is typically more Manichean than that of the many social science analysts and cultural critics who have studied violence and poverty in Rio. This problem is compounded by the fact that, despite the repercussions of social science work in some actual governmental policy, the media is more pervasive and generally has a broader, more immediate impact in the formation of public opinion. A series of articles published in O Globo soon after Tim Lopes’ murder will serve as an example of this tendency to flatten out and sensationalize issues such as organized crime and funk music. In general, funk music is represented in the articles as an apology for crime exalting violence and the claim was made that funk dances in favelas were places of “drugs, gun shots and orgies.”8 Drug traffickers are portrayed in similarly simplistic, negative terms as cold-blooded killers who torture their victims and tyrannically dominate the ignorant and powerless populations of the favelas. One article, appearing in O Globo Online, quotes a heavily loaded and debatable affirmation of researcher Zilah Vieira Meirelles as to the nature of drug trafficking in Rio, “O tráfico do Rio é muito violento. Eles são treinados para matar e não defender os mais fracos e oprimidos; torturam sadicamente os que vão contra as normas estabelecidas e não hesitam em matar, seja quem for.” (Werneck) The article presents some highly questionable statistics regarding the involvement of youths in organized crime, citing a study that claims that one in four people between the ages of ten and nineteen living in favelas participate in the trafficking of drugs. Further down in the body of the story, however, the reporter clarifies that only 7% of these youths actually collect a regular salary from organized crime. As for the other 93%, the author does not explain their involvement and merely writes that they carry out small tasks for the traffickers. By not qualifying either the specific type of “tasks” these kids perform or with what frequency they do them, the article has the effect of making the involvement of adolescents in the trafficking of drugs seem far more widespread than it is. The title could have read, “1.8% of Young People of the Favelas Have Salaries with Organized Crime,” a headline which would have better conveyed the results of the study cited without sensationalizing the issue.

In the special ten-page Sunday insert of O Globo from June 16, 2002, entitled “O Rio está perdendo a guerra contra o tráfico?”, there is a revealing two-page spread that typifies this sort of sensationalized, black and white representation of the problem. In enormous letters the title appears across the pages, “O confronto entre o poder do estado e o do crime.” There is a map of the city’s major favelas, showing the numbers of trafficker-soldiers and weapons in each, and a history of what it calls the “parallel powers” of Rio. There is a table with job descriptions and salaries in crime, a map of the movement of drugs throughout South America, and a timeline of some principal crime personalities of the last 50 years. In the middle are two groups of silhouettes of weapons; those used by police and those used by the traffickers. The most striking aspect of the spread to me is the organization it makes of what it calls the “Poder público,” along the left column, and the “Poder do crime organizado,” down the right-hand column. The description of the “public power”, or that of “O Estado do Rio,” is accompanied by photos of Benedita da Silva, governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro at that time, and leaders of various police and public security entities. The regime of the State is defined as a “democracy” and said to be the system of, “twenty seven units of the Federative Republic of Brazil, which is presidential.” On the other side of the spread the “Republic of the Drug Traffickers” is described and presented with pictures of several powerful crime bosses, including Elias Maluco, Fernandinho Beira-Mar and Uê. This “regime” is denoted as a “narcodictatorship” and the “system” is said to be, “tribal, characterized by the imposition of leadership by force and by the lack of institutional organization.”

Of course, it is fair to say, in many contexts, that Brazil is a “democracy” and that the ruling order of the favelas is a “narcodictatorship,” yet presenting the complex social terrain of Rio de Janeiro in terms of this facile dichotomy does no justice to the complexities of the issues. Most Brazilians are all too aware of the ways in which Brazil is not a perfect democracy, with its chronic problems of corrupt public officials, police abuse and neglect of the poor. Even many very conservative Brazilians would acknowledge the economic disparities and exclusion of the poor as fundamental causes of the social crisis that grips the country. Yet in the special Sunday insert of O Globo, the “State of Rio” is presented in a very unproblematic way and in legitimizing terms, whereas the “Power of Organized Crime” is portrayed as purely repressive and despotic. For example, the article defines “tribal society,” the term it uses to describe the social formation of the favelas, as one which is ruled “by the imposition of leadership by force.” Such a definition of “tribal society” is inadequate and harmful, ultimately distorting the picture in a way that dehumanizes the favelas and their rulers. In fact, tribal relations depend on kinship bonds and there are many quite intricate cultural norms in tribal society that do not depend directly on the use of force. Therefore, if favelas do turn out to be “tribal societies” in some ways, this does not mean that the use of force is the only, or even the principal, means of social cohesion.

In the editorial pages that accompanied this insert, O Globo did allow for space for the views of some important observers of socio-political life in Rio de Janeiro, such as journalist Zuenir Ventura and composer/musician Marcelo Yuka, who attempted to bring the debate beyond a “war on the traffickers” and pointed to the underlying causes of the crisis of violence. Paulo Lins, author of the novel Cidade de Deus and former resident of that infamous favela, wrote in an editorial in O Globo:

Suponhamos que conseguíssemos acabar com o tráfico de armas, de drogas e com os bailes funk; diminuíssemos a idade penal; aumentássemos o rigor das penas; e dobrássemos o efetivo das polícias. Será que seríamos felizes num país onde a desigualdade monetária é uma das maiores do mundo? Será que todos os excluídos iriam seguir caninamente a ordem social? Acabariam os conflitos? (Lins)

To his merit, Lins recognizes that the existence of a criminal society in the favelas and the very sale of drugs that sustains it are only symptoms of more complex issues related to social exclusion more generally. The problem of the wide-scale criminal activity that is the life-blood of Rio’s favelas is directly related to the gross economic disparity and general social exclusion that plague the city. Unlike the view presented in a O Globo two-page spread, the multi-layered social terrain of contemporary Brazil cannot be divided conveniently into a legitimate, “democratic republic” and an illegitimate “narcodictatorship.” Neither can it be said, as the spread in O Globo seems to suggest, that the elected government officials and their police forces altruistically represent the interests of the people while the crime bosses of the favelas and their soldiers dominate their communities in egotistical and hedonistic greed.

The reason that I have focused on the death of Tim Lopes as a means of introducing my analysis of proibidão-style funk in this chapter is because his kidnapping occurred at a baile funk. Thus, Lopes’ murder stands at a critical intersection between funk as a musical practice of the culture of the favela and the prominence of drug traffickers in favela communities. As an outsider who went to analyze and critique the governance of organized crime in Vila Cruzeiro, his actions in going there can be seen as a manifestation of the conflict between the authority of the state, and the status quo ideology that legitimizes it, and the authority and ideology of the drug traffickers. Since the baile funk has become a critical site for the staging of the power of Rio’s drug gangs and its symbolic representation, it was not a coincidence that Tim Lopes was murdered for being discovered undercover in a baile funk. Following a keen reporter’s instinct,Tim Lopes went to the favela of Vila Cruzeiro to do an extremely relevant exposé on the activities of drug traffickers in baile funk and on the increasingly bold role they have assumed in controlling favela communities. The presence of heavily armed gangsters and the abundance of song lyrics praising their power, as well as the many illegal activities that go on there openly challenge the state’s legitimacy, and its monopoly on the use of violence in the space of the favela, and affirms in its place the authority of organized crime in the favela in at least some governmental capacities. Unfortunately, as a representative of the media in Rio, Lopes’ presence at the dance made him a spy in the eyes of the local gangsters and a threat to their operations. The decision to torture and kill him, in addition to being an immoral and reprehensible act, inadvertently served as a sort of declaration of war by the Comando Vermelho on the legal authorities in Rio and set off a chain of events that has intensified the conflict between them ever since.9 Additionally, it was a decision that placed the baile funk and the proibidão-style funk lyrics at the heart of the issues of violence and citizenship in Rio de Janeiro.







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