I have a friend, Antônio Carlos who lives with his little family in the jungle just above Rocinha, somehow more free from the socioeconomic messiness surrounding his friends and family in the valley below. Antônio Carlos was born and raised in Rocinha and is a remarkably wonderful person.

Something unremarkable about him is that all his adolescent years he was actively recruited by the neighborhood drug traffickers. Antônio Carlos is a respectable guy and the higher ups in the drug gangs could see that we was honest, reliable and a hard worker. They, like any business, sought to draw in individuals who would grow their enterprise and help them make money.

Something else about Antônio Carlos that may or may not be remarkable is that he grew up soccer buddies with another Antônio. This Antônio, Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, grew up to one day become the “Dono do Morro.” “Morro” means “hill” where favelas are usually located, and “Dono” translates as “landlord, owner, proprietor,” etc. It’s the sad and telling title for the chief drug trafficker. And that Antônio’s career as “Dono do Morro” was recently cut short by his arrest at the hands of a coordinated law enforcement effort, an invasion of the hill during the first week in Novemeber of 2011.

Wanted Poster for Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, leader of Rocinha the drug faction based in Rocinha

The various law enforcement agencies announced their intention to invade and a shortly thereafter, they had captured the man who some regarded as the most wanted criminal in Rio.

Typically when we think of cocaine dealers running multimillion dollar operations, what comes to mind? Griselda Blanco? Pablo Escobar? Do we think of people who lack only empathy and shame more than they lack scruples? Thugs of shrewd intellect and pitiless character? 

While I was in Rocinha the picture I was able to glean bore no resemblance to this stereotype. Make no mistake, to be where he was, Nem must have committed many a foul act. But he appeared as much a victim of circumstance as the willful “Chefão” that would be the stuff of Baile Funk lyrics and police advisories.

My friend, the other Antônio, described Nem as quiet, careful and observant. He told me that he always seemed to study his circumstances and learned to react accordingly. This might resonate yet with the Scarface stereotype. However, the way in which my friend Antônio described Nem did not paint a picture of malice and unscrupulousness, rather much more as any regular guy around the soccer field, around the neighborhood.

That neighborhood is Rocinha, remember. On my way to Rio, Brazilian passengers were consistently appalled that I was headed to Rio at all let alone Rocinha. They said I was crazy, did I want to be killed? Didn’t I know that’s where the drug wars and “bandidos” live?

Rua do Valão, Rocinha. I was careful not to photograph the group of armed "Soldados" grouped just outside the lower edge of this frame.

What the news reports didn’t tell about these “bandidos” was what one might hear from their neighbors, from their family members. Even from, perhaps other residents of the Rio’s South Zone, where street crime had all but been abolished on order from Nem, the “Dono do Morro” himself. By that point the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos “Friends of Friends” drug faction that, with Nem at the helm, controlled the South Zone, based in  Rocinha and neighboring Vidigal) held it as a point of pride that no one needed to worry about their safety in the streets.

And never once over the course of my 5 week stay in Rocinha did I feel threatened by the many functionaries and managers of the ADA. I should say that once was I made to feel unwelcome, by a “Gerente.” But then, in fairness to him he was heavily armed and I was right near the ADA headquarters, and he simply asked me to head back to the main street. He could easily have been more threatening, and he wasn’t.

I had previously discovered why. Why he didn’t stir up any more trouble than necessary.

In my neck of the woods, there is an interesting phenomenon. Regardless of how much damage a mutlinational corporation or other large and powerful employer does to your community, to your ecology, to your health, you don’t ever “shit where you eat.” It was like this with logging families in Veneta, Oregon, like this with miners in Libby, Montana, like this with farmers and ranchers in Soda Springs, Idaho, with downwinders in Cedar City, Utah.

People involved in power such as that turn a blind eye to the negatives of the institution that cares for them. As long as that institution is able to do what it does, if business can continue uninterrupted, the people dependent on it will be able to pay for shelter and clothing and food.

Michel Foucault. Image: F. Viard / Gamma

Michel Foucault explains that power is never as hierarchical as we think. It acts much more in capillary action than a centralized, top down chain of command.

So what do Foucault and Libby, Montana have to do with that ADA Gerente who spoke crossly to me in Rocinha? I’ll try to begin explaining that by telling you he was headed up the hill with two large pistols and a radio concealed under his soccer jersey, typical of one in his role, that’s not unusual. What struck me he held a caged songbird in his right hand.

Of course that fact alone would mean little if I had not had already so many experiences to suggest that these guys weren’t out to get in gun battles or wreak havoc. They do this, no doubt. Just as many workers at carcinogenic mining companies or polluting agribusinesses are “just doing their job.”

The “power” in a drug faction as in a multinational corporation or a government, comes from all involved: peripherally, directly, high-up or foot-soldier.  The power of the ADA doesn’t come from the drugs, the cash or the weapons. These are manifestations, tools of the power. Remember, power acts in capillary, not in hierarchy.

I mention this again for two reasons: (1) Imprisoning Nem and his cohorts will do little to actually end the drug trade in Rocinha, the South Zone or anywhere else. (2) The power at the root of the existence of such business as the ADA conducts lies in one simple label: Marginal. The cognate of “marginal” in English, but rather than an adjective, in this context in Brazilian Portuguese “marginal” is a noun synonymous with “Bandido” “Trafficante” it’s a poor, favela-dwelling street thug.

Nem of Rocinha, just after his arrest in the early ours of 10 November 2011. Image: Rede Record.

Most importantly it cuts directly to the quick of the issue: the young men who bear this label have found scant opportunity in mainstream life, and have found ample prejudice, ample marginalization. The myriad signals they have received from the world they live in have dictated that the most appropriate thing to do is enter the drug trade. And they know the risks. They’ve lived as children through gunbattles, seen the crooked cops and bullet riddled bodies.

My friend Antônio Carlos had been recruited and made it into his thirties because he resisted. But it came at a cost. Only now as an adult with relatively stable employment, has he overcome the shame and stigma and prejudice of admitting to those from elsewhere in Rio, prospective employers, and others, that he is from Rocinha: A favelado, with all of the stereotypes it carries.

The other Antônio, Nem, is said to have entered the drug trade in desperation only when his daughter fell ill and he was left with insurmountable medical expenses. He assumed control of the ADA after its previous leader was killed by police.

While in Rocinha last, I spoke with a young man who told me something I’d hear echoed in many different ways and circumstances. He said “I’d feel safer in a crowd of traffickers than among a bunch of cops.” He had friends in the drug trade, he had seen the deaths, been there for raids and searches. How else could he feel?

Translation: "The State." Obviously highly reductionist, but there's also not nothing to it either. Image: Carlos Latuff © 2009

Nem was not the cause, he was not really even in control of the ADA’s illicit trade. The police, captured the “Dono do Morro”, but he was caught up in the currents of forces larger than himself, forces of racism, classism, corrupt politics, unjust economics, forces with deep roots and long histories.

It’s a tricky thing asking sympathy for the devil. And one thing I certainly don’t want to do here, is to minimize the strength of character and force of will it takes for my friend Antônio Carlos to tread water in the mainstream. Of course, Nem must be held accountable for his actions, his lifestyle. I’m certain even he is aware of that on some level.

But of something else I’m also certain: Nem was a symptom, as long as marginalization exists, it will produce “marginals.”

6 thoughts on “Já Era o Nem: So What’s Next for Zona Sul’s Favela Residents?

  1. I like the post, and I agree with the conclusion that ‘bandidos’ are not the source of social ill but the product of social marginalization. Based on various reports, Nem doesn’t seem to be a vicious menacing drug lord. I’m sure you have read the interview with Nem by Ruth de Aquino in Revista Epoca of Globo, but maybe others haven’t so here is the link: http://revistaepoca.globo.com/tempo/noticia/2011/11/meu-encontro-com-nem.html. I do think its important to note that Rocinha and Nem are exceptional cases. While I am skeptical that everyone in Rocinha always felt safe under the control of ADA, it is often stated and usually goes unquestioned. It certainly isn’t the case in all favelas controlled by gangs (and certainly not the favelas controlled by the illegal police militias). Perhaps Rocinha was regarded as safe because it was undisputed territory? But in favelas where there are warring gangs, it is anything but safe. Again, I agree with Julia; I’m just cautious not to use Rocinha as an example for other favelas because, despite being possibly the most studied favela/slum in the world, it’s quite unique.

  2. Thanks for the insight Tucker. My personal take, in my relatively limited experience, is that nobody was deluded into thinking that the ADA was (is?) their protectorate, some watchful patriarch with an assault rifle. I do think that that is the role Nem tried to play to some extent. The outlawing of street crime while very effective, served, as much as for anything else, to keep law enforcement out of the Zona Sul, so as to keep business going as usual.

    You are absolutely right about the Zona Sul being a crime outlier in the past few years, the Commando Vermelho, for example in Complexo do Alemão and the Zona Norte had a much worse reputation for violence in my experience, and I won’t really try to explain that much, it’s out of the purview if this piece and also my experience, though I think there are hints as to how that works.

    This piece really came about for me as a reaction to being around the ADA, seeing how and who they are in the day-to-day, and wondering how they got there.

    One way in which Rocinha (the ‘favela vitrine’) is ordinary, is it’s humanity. So much deep seeded, though often latent despair. So much sadness. But at the bottom of it all, the vast majority have huge, hopeful hearts, however broken.

    My hope is that the city (and not just the government) will take serious long-term measures to end drug violence. I see that happening. Meanwhile, all we can do is hope. People I talked to in previously pacified favelas, said the drug trade was still there just quieter. And that’s a huge step. But there again, without a long term cultural level reexamination of prejudices and injustices, the official (law enforcement, governmental) changes will be simply window dressing, unfortunately.

  3. Pingback: Remaking Rio: favela tourism and the tourist narrative, part II «

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