Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk


Rich and Poor in the Crisis of Violence in Brazil



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Rich and Poor in the Crisis of Violence in Brazil


Funk as a musical practice has arisen in the context of the long standing crisis of violence in Rio de Janeiro, specifically within the social formation of the favela, and it is therefore fundamental to consider some of the general characteristics of both at this time. This growing crisis of urban violence, which Zuenir Ventura has characterized as a sort of post-modern, economic war of social exclusion, is one of the most urgent problems facing Brazil. (Ventura 1994) In the last decade in Rio, there has been no shortage of media moments in this war, from the arrastões of 1992 (in which crowds of low-income youths swarmed the beaches and streets in the area of Arpoador between Copacabana and Ipanema, looting and stealing as they went), Candelária (in which police killed seven street children sleeping on the steps of the Candelária church in downtown Rio) and Vigário Geral (in which a group of 30 police officers shot and killed 21 random residents of that favela in broad day light) in 1993, Operação Rio (in which the army was sent to occupy several of Rio’s favelas) in 1994, the hijacking of the 174 bus right next to the Globo network in Jardim Botânico in June of 2000, the murder of Tim Lopes in June 2002, and the subsequent terrorist campaign by the Comando Vermelho in which buses were burnt, buildings shot up and bombs exploded at various points throughout the city. As frightening as these high-profile events have been for the general public of Rio, most of the thousands of violent deaths occurring each year throughout the city, and throughout Brazil more generally, have taken place in relative obscurity in its country’s streets, prisons and favelas. An article on the front page of the Washington Post reported that this climate of violence is furthering the physical isolation of the rich from the poor. This is occurring, the article claims, as a symptom of the growing economic disparity between social classes in Brazil:

Amid rising crime and overpopulation, the rich are retrenching into hyper-insulated lives. In this sprawling nation of 170 million, sociologists call it the price of social inequity. Brazil has one of the most marked disparities of wealth in the world, with the richest 10 percent of the population controlling

more than 50 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 percent control less than 1 percent. (Faiola, 2002)

According to the article, the quality of life for middle and upper-class Brazilians has worsened as the threat of becoming a victim of crime has steadily increased. Many people have become afraid to go out after dark, to take a walk in the street, or to ride a public bus. Some with more money have purchased bulletproof cars, hired body guards and begun to commute by helicopter. Car-jackings continue to be frequent, there is a high number of kidnappings, and assaults of banks, homes, pedestrians and even buses are commonplace. The article states that homicide rates in the greater São Paulo area have risen in the last decade to about 60 murders per 100,000 residents, exponentially higher than those of Washington, DC and New York City, which, it claims, are 7.4 and 7.8 per 100,000 respectively. According to another source on numbers in greater Rio, the rate in the city has ranged throughout the nineties from 50 to 75 per 100,000, and in the Baixada Fluminense from about 67 to 85.10 In São Paulo something like 11,000 people are murdered every year and in Rio, a considerably smaller city, around 6,000.



Of course, most of the violent deaths in Brazil are not those of the rich, but of poor people who can’t afford to live in gated communities, people who have been forced to develop different strategies for security and survival. In Rio de Janeiro, many of these poor, mostly non-white people live in favelas, partially informal communities in which municipal, state and federal governments have a limited presence. In the face of the nightmarish levels of violence in Brazil and the need for protection and social services, residents of most favelas in Rio have come to depend upon highly organized and heavily armed groups of local drug traffickers for the well being of the community. This alternative and illegal form of power has emerged around and depends mostly upon the revenue from the trafficking of cocaine and marijuana from points of sale located within favelas known as bocas-de-fumo. The drug gangs sometimes also make revenue through activities such as kidnappings, bank robberies and the illegal sale of arms. Most are backed and supplied by one of the narco-alliances in the city: the Comando Vermelho (CV), which dominates most of Rio’s favelas; the Terceiro Comando (TC), also ruling a large number of areas; and the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA), the narco-alliance most openly tied to the police, whose control is limited to a relatively small number of the city’s favelas.

Favela Gangsters as the New Colonels?


The question of the nature and role of drug traffickers, and the perceptions of drug traffickers by the residents of favelas, is a complex one and has attracted the attention of many academic observers. Alba Zaluar, considered by many to be one of the foremost experts on urban violence in Brazil, has done extensive work on drug traffickers and she has made important contributions to the understanding of urban violence in Rio de Janeiro. Zaluar, who has a nuanced understanding of the workings of organized crime based on years of research and an abundance of information gathered in her field work, her own and that of her students at UERJ, has argued since the early eighties that, despite the impressions of residents of favelas, the rule of the drug traffickers in Rio is built upon little more than the power of their firearms. For her, no class or race identities are relevant and in fact no sort of “culture” of drug trafficking can be said to exist in the favelas. On the one hand, Zaluar’s argument works against the notion that the rule of the drug traffickers constitutes a “parallel power,” for the drug traffickers she depicts in her work are not interested in being an alternative government to the state. On the other hand, by denying the existence of any culture of traffickers through which gangsters and residents interact and insisting that their control depends entirely on the force of their weapons, her arguments ultimately suggest the sort of “narcodictatorship” model often affirmed by the Brazilian media. It is worth reproducing a long quote from Zaluar’s article “Nem líderes nem heróis: a verdade da história oral,” appearing in her book Condomínio do Diabo, in which she states some of the basic assertions about drug trafficking in Rio that recur throughout her work:

Se não há liderança, muito menos pode-se falar de “governo” dos bandidos nos bairros pobres ou favela. A única função do governo que exercem, em alguns locais, em algumas épocas, é a de oferecer relativa segurança aos moradores de sua área, livrando-os dos ataques de bandidos de outras e punindo os que, entre eles, cometem excessos. Mas isso não tem impedido estupros de mulheres por parte de bandidos, nem pequenos roubos e furtos nessas áreas. E seu estilo de vida não os faz aptos a exercerem as funções de assistência social que alguns jornais lhes atribuem. Seu padrões de consumo não lhes permitem acumular dinheiro suficiente para exercê-las em bairros e favelas extremamente populosos, nem possuem o projeto político ou o sistema simbólico que lhes permita concebê-las. Não são bandidos sociais, vingadores de seus povos, são empresários do crime e seus empregados. (144)

Zaluar’s words come in response to the argument that the drug traffickers protect and provide for the residents of their communities, a belief very common among the people living in favelas. As the result of her research, Zaluar knows that residents are not as safe or well protected as they think and that the faith many have in their drug gangs is not always deserved. She does acknowledge that, in certain times and places, some gangs have offered some degree of protection from gangsters from other areas and from residents within the community who would harm their neighbors. Even in these cases, however, she points out that rape and petty theft has been know to occur. In any event, Zaluar points out that the levels of consumption typical of the lifestyle of the gangsters prevents them from acquiring enough cash to effectively help the residents of favelas in any significant way. Her emphasis on the materialist tendencies of the drug traffickers is a part of her critique of the larger Brazilian social order more generally. Ultimately, she views the drug traffickers as victims of the failings of society and the prevailing consumerist/hedonist ideology she considers as being a part of the status quo in Brazil for some time.

As another part of her criticism of the larger Brazilian society, Zaluar suggests that a new form of paternalism has emerged that has superseded older forms based upon personal relationships and loyalty.(256) She has applied the implications of this view throughout her career to work against the notion that the drug traffickers of Rio’s favelas are some sort of Robin Hoodian “social bandits,” that they are modern day versions of the Northeastern cangaceiro bandits like Lampião and Antônio Silvino, or that they are related to the coronelismo of Brazil’s past. She has also worked to dispel the notion that the quadrilhas (gangs) are comparable to the Italian and American mafias, or US and Mexican street gangs, all which she sees as depending on the traditional paternalistic base. For Zaluar, this new form of clientelism is based on self-interest and consumerism and is symptomatic of capitalist society in contemporary Brazil, which she describes as:

…tardio, pós-ético, pós-moderno, pós-sociedade do trabalho, em que os efeitos do consumismo e do hedonismo já minaram os valores sociais agregadores e as autoridades tradicionais, transformou muito rapidamente a sociedade brasileira sem criar uma engenharia institucional para limitar as tendências destruidoras do tecido social, porque baseado na busca do lucro e do interesse pessoal.(262)

Along with the demise of interpersonal paternalism, Zaluar argues, the notion of authority has become inverted and is no longer that of the traditional legitimacy, “…baseado em um consenso social de quem deve ser obedecido em quais espaços e por virtude de quais valores.” (113) For the chefes, or chiefs, of the new individualistic and ego-centric paternalism the existence of violent means of coercion is the only basis for authority. For Zaluar, the bosses of Rio’s favelas are one more instance of this sort of ‘chief’ and therefore no consensus is necessary for their hegemony beyond the force of their firearms. For these bosses and their soldiers, crime offers an easy means for poor men to participate in the consumerist society already dominant in Brazil: “A saída criminosa é a entrada possível para a sociedade de consumo já instalada no país.”(Zaluar, 113)

Although Alba Zaluar may have viewed this argument as a way of shifting the blame for the social ills of the war of drug trafficking from the gangsters to the larger society which has produced them, the somewhat circular reasoning she uses to argue her case ends up oversimplifying the problem in dangerous ways. Beginning from Hannah Arendt’s famous demarcations of power, violence, force and authority, Zaluar basically says that authority is not based on violence, and since the power of the traffickers is based on violence, they have no authority. This is slippery reasoning, for in a backwards way, Zaluar is saying that since traffickers have no authority, they have no authority. She has not proven the second premise of the argument, the one that says that the power of the drug traffickers’ power is based on violence. In fact, Arendt herself states in On Violence that, “Violence can destroy power; it can never create it.”(56) Thus, really a more relevant application of Arendt’s thought to the situation of the favelas is to ask other questions that are central to the present essay: If violence does not create the power of the trafficker, where does it come from? How is the authority of the traffickers, understood as “… the unquestioning recognition of those who are to obey,” and which requires, “neither coercion nor persuasion,” (Arendt, 45) mediated in the community?

Although on the surface Zaluar is right in asserting that most gangsters in Rio do not have any specific political or ideological orientation through which they seek to better their communities, her arguments suggest a false dichotomy between “avengers of the people” and the “businessmen of crime.” Somewhere in between being Robinhood and a cold, calculating criminal there is some symbolic system through which the identity of Rio’s gangsters is constructed, a system that forms part of the culture of favelas and can be seen in proibidão funk music. In any event, it seems to me that she makes her argument an overly rigid notion of consciousness. I would argue that drug traffickers do in fact have a specific ideological orientation, one that makes up and manifests itself as a sort of “culture of drug trafficking,” the same one that is presented in the practice of proibidão funk. This culture, though not explicitly political, is the sort of emergent consciousness that Raymond Williams writes about, one that involves notions of class and racial struggle that are essential to the legitimacy of the traffickers in their communities. Furthermore, Zaluar’s claim that the hedonist lifestyles of drug traffickers prohibits them from having any money for social assistance does not seem to account for the fact that the traffickers do give significant social assistance beyond protection, specifically in such areas as sports and leisure, money and medicine for the poor. I would not argue that the forms of help offered by the trafficker to his community are the best for political mobilization and the advancement of civil and human rights in Brazil. Still, that such support of the community is ultimately paternalist and further strengthens the legitimacy of the traffickers does not change the fact that a culture of mutually understood expectations about social assistance does exist between the residents of favelas.

Perhaps the biggest danger with Zaluar’s characterization of the ethos of the drug traffickers, from my point of view, is that it oversimplifies the matter and presupposes a kind of unity of personality that simply does not exist. Just as individual residents of the community have a variety of opinions regarding the nature of gangsters in the favela, so too do the actual drug traffickers themselves have complex, sometimes contradictory views about themselves and their activities. After all, gangsters are human beings and are likely to be just as incoherent in their beliefs and attitudes as the rest of us. They can want love, be jealous, believe in God, and hate society all at the same time. They can believe both that they are racially inferior to someone and more human than that same person. Maybe a drug trafficker will watch Brazil in the World Cup one morning instead of selling drugs, thereby missing the opportunity to make some money for nothing more than a love of soccer and the Brazilian national team. He might make the sign of the cross and lower his head as he walks past a church or near a boisterous street evangelist. One drug trafficker may listen constantly to funk music, think hip-hop has a good message, dance with country folk from the interior of Ceará state at a forró party and cry when he hears an old song by Legião Urbana. Some drug traffickers are drug addicts and alcoholics, others may become Pentecostal Christians. Some get sober in Alcoholics Anonymous or find religion and manage to leave the life of crime. They have brothers who are pastors, police officers and delivery boys; they have sisters who work in the mall or who are singers in a pagode band. The point is that these drug traffickers are people, people living in a post-modern globalized world with TVs, radios, movies, music, churches, schools, military service, samba schools and funk dances. They are not characters in a typical Hollywood movie, flattened out and internally coherent, always acting in greed and self-interest. To ascribe their motives to a vague notion of “post-modern, post-work-ethic, consumerist, hedonist society” is to deny the intricacies of their personalities and the multiple aspects of the confluence of often conflicting ideological currents that run through them.

Just as the drives of an individual drug trafficker cannot be reduced to a single consumerist impulse, the rule of the traffickers collectively is a human endeavor and likely to be even less coherent and unified. There is no single motive that the enterprise is built on, nor one facile explanation that accounts for the choices of tens of thousands of individuals involved in it in different places and the contexts of their own lives. Everyone has a story, so a group of drug traffickers is in a sense a group of life stories, all unique and different in some ways from the others. For example, Marcinho VP, an avowed socialist and one of the most famous bosses of the nineties and chief of the Dona Marta favela in Botafogo, had a plan to rid his gang of drug trafficking altogether. He wanted to retain power to be able to protect, educate and empower the residents of his community. Maybe he is a romantic, and he would certainly not be the only drug trafficker to romanticize his life in one way or another, just as most people do in all walks of life. Another might be a drug trafficker because of the money, fashionable clothes and attractive girlfriends. Another might be in it because he is angry with life, hates his parents and wants to act out aggressively. Perhaps another has become involved because he is an alcoholic and addict, or maybe because he thinks he’s is on a mission from God. Still another wishes to, “Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” Another was in the military, enjoyed the sense of purpose and discipline of military life, and now seeks to find an identity and someone to follow in the soldier lifestyle of organized crime. In addition to unrealistic motives and romantic notions about their lives, mixed together with practical and financial reasons for being involved, some drug traffickers are likely to be actually clinically insane. I am not saying that no consumer culture exists that influences the young people who join organized crime in Rio. What I am saying is that the complex motives I described above are not merely exceptions to the rule that traffickers are hedonists, but rather that the consumer culture is but one factor in the intricate knot of drives and motives that are inherent in a fully human personality.






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