Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

Cops and Robbers Backwards

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Cops and Robbers Backwards

Se tu invadir e ficar de bam bam bam,

Vai tomar de fuzil ou de pistola e de sadam

Por que o bonde não é papo furado,

então eu digo, é fortemente preparado,

Se tu é um alemão, ou então um polícia,

Melhor não invadir a favela da Rocinha,

O bonde forte da Rocinha anda armado até os dentes12

Despite its increasing urbanization and economic importance, Rocinha’s existence as a slum amidst some of the most elite carioca neighborhoods makes it a classic example of the social terrain of Rio de Janeiro. A long history of neglect on the part of the larger society and the rise of the drug traffickers as the governing power in the favela have left a legacy of complex and backward social organization in Rocinha. One result of this is that the drug traffickers have come to be regarded by many residents as the legitimate protectors of the community and the police as aggressors. In a recent conversation in Rocinha, three young boys told me something quite typical of this view. As we talked about such things as growing up in the favela, what’s good and bad about the neighborhood, music and violence, the boys consistently expressed a much higher level of trust in the drug traffickers than in the police.

Question: Vocês vêem esse pessoal diariamente (os traficantes), entrando e saindo, vocês têm medo deles? Qual é a sua reação?

Filipe: Não! A gente, a gente já está acostumado… Eles não prejudicam os moradores, entendeu? Eles tratam bem…

Question: Então, e policial, se você vê policial aqui, você tem medo?

Filipe: Aí, sim. Policial, sim, a gente tem medo. Por que o policial não tem diferença, ele não sabe quem é os bandidos daqui, ele, a primeira pessoa que ele vê, “Ah! Ele deve ser bandido.” Atira, mata, ou então prende.13

In the conversation, the boys expressed a constant fear of the police and their activity in the favela.

Not surprisingly, when I asked the boys if living in Rocinha is good or bad, violence and police “invasions” were two things that immediately came to their minds.

Question: É bom morar aqui na Rocinha?

Maikom: A única coisa ruim aqui na Rocinha que eu acho, porque é muita casa uma perto da outra e fica tudo abafado, e quando as polícia invade a gente não, sei lá… mas agora eu já sei quando a polícia está entrando é quando eles solta três vezes os fogos.

Question: Aí o que você faz?

Maikom: Eu vou para casa, e às vezes a dona Raimunda me chama para eu ir para casa que a gente já está perto da dela, aí todo mundo entra para casa.14

Despite the fact that all three found Rocinha to be a great place to play, their underlying fear and insecurity were sadly evident in their comments:

Erick: Sabe por que eu acho regular porque é assim, porque tem a parte boa que a gente não é machucada, a parte também que a gente pode se machucar quando os policial vêm pra cá, e a parte que a gente não tem liberdade porque ninguém sabe a hora que os policial vão invadir, aí a gente não sabe a hora que vai ter tiroteio, a gente pode estar brincando na rua, a gente não sabe que tem policial já tá invadindo, aí de repente passa um bandido lá no beco onde a gente mora, passa correndo e a gente pensa que é o cara brincando, vem o policial, vê o cara bem na nossa frente, atira, não vê nem a gente, aí atira, vem bala perdida na gente.15

The word “invasion” itself is indicative of the relationships between the police, the drug traffickers and the community of the favela. For example, no one ever refers to the police as invading the Avenida Presidente Vargas in the center of the city. In the favela, the police are often seen as invading because they are not considered by very many people to be the legitimate protectors of the community, although individual police officers themselves do in fact come from favelas or other poor neighborhoods where they may be personally liked. Just as the official government of the state is seen as being remote and somewhat foreign to the favela, the police do not know its individual residents. As a group, they tend to be regarded by the residents of favelas as unsympathetic and dangerous outsiders who are more likely to hurt someone than to help. Their corruption and frequent complicity with the drug trafficking does nothing to endear them to the residents of the favelas, but instead further undermines their authority and emphasizes the hypocrisy of the larger system.

Despite the trust the boys have that the drug traffickers will not harm them, the actual nature of the gangs in favelas, called quadrilhas, or comandos, and that of their relationship to their communities is a hotly disputed topic. This is true not only among intellectuals and politicians, but among residents of favelas as well. In the case of Rocinha, although each individual resident of the favela of Rocinha has his or her own opinion about the influence of the drug gangs in their community, by and large most accept them as a necessary evil. Some believe that the traffickers competently defend and protect the community; others idolize and love them. There are other people living in Rocinha who deeply hate the drug traffickers and resent their presence in the neighborhood. In my years of living in Rocinha and interacting with my neighbors there, as well as in the interviews I conducted for this study, I saw evidence to suggest that most residents of Rocinha at least trust drug traffickers to a much greater degree than they trust police. If they do not like a particular trafficker or find him cruel and abusive to the population, people tend to condemn that individual and compare him to other more favorable gangsters.

Denis, the big boss of Rocinha during the mid to late eighties, is today generally revered by the population of Rocinha. The period in which he was in charge is remembered as the “good old days’ when Denis prohibited his gangsters from openly carrying arms in the favela and using drugs in public, as well as insisting that they always used polite forms of speech when dealing with other residents of the community. This reverence for Denis as Rocinha’s best ever crime boss was only fortified after he was shot to death inside Bangu 1 just a short time before he was to be released in February of 2001. Other bosses since Denis have also achieved a considerable degree of popularity and support within the community; still others have been greatly feared and hated. The infamous Dudu, who was boss during the mid-nineties, was associated with the Jovem Comando Vermelho (Young Comando Vermelho), a movement which relied more directly upon terror than the traditional CV. Among other things, Dudu was known to feed his murdered victims to the two lions and a crocodile he kept in subterranean passages somewhere beneath his boca-de-fumo. Also, it is widely reported that he used to force young girls to have their first sexual experiences with him, and that he once burned a young boy to death for stealing in the favela. Even so, Dudu did cater to the image of the drug trafficker as the protector of the community and he did have his admirers. Apparently he didn’t have enough admirers, for eventually his lack of popularity caught up to him and his whereabouts were betrayed to police by residents of Rocinha. One Sunday afternoon, Dudu was surprised by police and arrested in 1995 in his mother-in-law’s house, ironically the very house that I myself have been living in since the year 2000.

In any event, the basic expectations of the rule of traffickers by the residents of the favela of Rocinha are considerably more comprehensive than the those described by Zaluar. True, the first order of business is protection and if a resident is murdered, raped or robbed, for example, the culprit must be found, permanently or temporarily exiled from the favela, or executed. Residents are never asked to pay with money for this protection or these services and do expect that the same rules apply to even the highest ranking drug traffickers. In addition to this protection, traffickers from the boca-de-fumo are also supposed to help residents by giving food, medicine and money to the poor, paving roads and supporting samba schools. Additionally, they regularly pay for enormous funk dances and are sometimes responsible for such things as fixing up sports courts and administering the schedules of what soccer teams are to play and when. There have been instances in the history of Rocinha in which drug traffickers have forced the bicheiros, the men who control an important illegal lottery in Rio, to provide social services for the community also. In return for this protection and these social services from the boca, the residents are expected to hold their tongues with the police, acknowledge the rightful leadership of the traffickers, and cooperate with their various activities, from the sale of drugs to the administering of favela justice. They may be expected, in extreme circumstances, to allow the sudden invasion of a home for the purpose of hiding people, weapons or drugs. If a resident does inform either the police or rival gangs about the specific dealings of the boca-de-fumo, the traffickers will do their best to kill him or her, often in gruesome ways intended to make an example of the person. Nor can the police be called upon to resolve any problems or otherwise do any policing on their own within the community. “Policing,” per se, is the duty and privilege of the boca, and any resident wishing to denounce the crime of another must approach the drug traffickers who will, if they deem necessary, undertake an investigation of the matter.

As a means of demonstrating the complex ways in which the roles of the sate and the drug gangs gets mixed up and turned around in the multi-layered political reality of the favela, I will recount a revealing anecdote. Until the Rocinha branch of the BANERJ bank was robbed in November of 2000, it was considered by many to be the most secure bank in the city. After a brief exchange of gunfire between the bank robbers and the security guard working inside, the assailants were forced to flee. Within minutes, the street where the bank is located was swarming with heavily armed gangsters from the boca-de-fumo, which was responsible for protecting the bank. The gangsters had called the local officers of the Polícia Militar to help them find the assailants and were slowly walking up and down the street along with the police, trying to get to the bottom of the matter and find the culprits. Had the guilty parties been found within the favela, they would likely have been executed to affirm the authority of the boca over even the most commercially developed areas of Rocinha, generally situated near the bottom of the favela, which are still governed by its drug traffickers even as they are becoming increasingly regulated by the state. Fortunately for the bank robbers, they were not found in Rocinha, though they were captured in a random blitz, or police blockade, less than two miles away in São Conrado. The all too typical conclusion of the episode is that the bank robbers were actually off-duty members of the Polícia Militar serving on the other side of town.16

In the light of this story about the bank robbery, it would seem very difficult to explain the behavior of either the drug traffickers or the police by the sort of “only violent means” thesis espoused by Zaluar. How is one to answer the question, “Why are the drug dealers protecting a bank?” The answer will certainly be at least as complicated as the answers to the questions, “Why are police officers robbing a bank?” and, “Why are other police officers working together with the gangsters to solve the crime?” I am inclined to say that the drug traffickers are protecting the bank because of the social consensus that one cannot steal in the favela. Even a bank or other formal business must be protected, formal and normalized institutions increasingly common in favelas as they undergo a process of “asphaltification.” If they are not protected by the boca, the authority of the traffickers is weakened and it becomes apparent that they cannot be trusted to efficiently uphold their end of the social bargain upon which their legitimacy rests. In any event, I hope this example suffices to suggest that the social order of the favela is infinitely more complex than a tyranny of bloodthirsty drug traffickers over the residents of the favelas and that their social order is much more intimately intertwined with the status quo system than suggested by such characterizations as “democracy versus narcodictatorship.” While I will not argue that the traffickers are some progressive minded revolutionaries, though some may be, I will suggest that there does exist, in fact, a culture of drug trafficking in the social formation of the favela built upon much more complex factors than the mere threat of the use of violence. The social formation of the favela is less “parallel” to the State than it is subordinate to the status quo order in Brazil, as the cooperation of the gangsters with police in this case suggests.

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