October 2002

The War Within

Gangs usually play the role of government in Rio's favelas,
ruling them and even providing for the needs of the population,
including better transportation and security.

Carolina Berard

According to a recent poll by Datafolha, the polling arm of daily newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, 60 percent of Brazilian voters consider security one of the most important factors in determining their vote for the presidency. Given the increasing rates of violence in all of the major cities in the country and the perception of the failure of current policies, this is hardly surprising.

The importance of efficient measures towards violence was made evident by an event in Rio: Luis Fernando da Costa, 35, Brazil's most notorious drug lord, stirred up a rebellion in Bangu I (ironically called a maximum security penitentiary), which lasted about 23 hours. Later that day, Costa, best known as Fernandinho Beira Mar, sneered at police after his prowess in leading the mutiny and killing his worst rival with cruelty in jail.

National and international authorities have been after Fernandinho Beira Mar (also known as Freddy Seashore) for years. His name appears on the black list of drug traffickers published by the U.S. State Department and the White House. This is due to his relationship with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). According to Veja, Brazil's most widely read magazine, the FARC trades with drug traffickers in order to get money to buy arms and support their activities against the Colombian state. Their business provided Costa with free access to Colombia's big drugs cartels.

The rebellion, which coincidentally took place on September 11, led to discussions about whether part of the police was involved in Costa's strategy and to the conclusion that the State has become so weak to the point of not being able to prevent such mutiny. So, the war should be not only against drug dealers, but also against corrupt policemen who cooperate with bandits and against measures that have not proven efficient.

Corrupt policemen and authorities cooperating with drug dealers is a fact. So much so that nowadays most Brazilians know that many of these drug lords continue their activities uninterrupted from their jail cells, using cell phones (!) and firearms. Their activities receive the "authorization of the State" because the drug lords allocate about 25 percent of each US$ 1 million they make to corrupt authorities, according to data from the Ministry of Justice.

According to political scientist Arthur Maranhão Costa, the ineffective performance of the police and the aggravation of problems related to drug trafficking are due to several factors. First, the Brazilian police force has not been designed to control the situations that take place nowadays in shantytowns, especially the biggest ones. "Their role," he argues, "has always been that of guarding the feeble border between two social worlds: the favelas and the elites."

Second, because of Brazil's model of social control, which is based on spatial segregation (the poor usually live in suburbs), social exclusion and police violence. According to Maranhão Costa, this model has always been regarded as satisfactory by the elites, but ceased to be "efficient" in the 1980s, with the expansion of cheaper drugs. This combination of social control and easier access to drugs created bocas de fumo (specific places in the mega favelas where drugs are traded on a large scale), a place almost unreachable by outsiders and almost impossible to be destroyed by the police.

The police are not only incapable of coping with this problem, but also discredited by a great part of the population. According to a 1997 study cited by Maranhão Costa, 82 percent of victims of robbery in Rio did not go to the police to register the crime, simply because they did not believe policemen would either solve their problem or protect them.

The lack of confidence is extremely high in society in general, but it is even higher in the slums. After all, the gangs usually play the role of a government in the favelas, ruling them and sometimes even providing the population with "everything the legitimate government cannot," such as better transportation and security, according to a recent article published by the Washington Post.

Once a local battle, the lack of effective measures against drug trafficking gained the proportions of a national war, especially after the press became more involved. This involvement, however, came at a high cost: the killing of journalist Tim Lopes, who had been reporting funk music parties—events held mostly in shanty towns where drug dealers can most easily sell drugs. His assassination was a clear response of the drug lords to the presence of journalists, and outsiders in general, in their `territory .' Targeting Tim Lopes, who worked for Globo, the all-mighty Brazilian TV channel and media conglomerate, was a particularly powerful statement.

Needless to say, especially in the aftermath of this event, Globo became more involved and their coverage of traffickers and their activities has been incessant. The Brazilian press covered with a great sense of pride the September 19 capture of the principal suspect for the murder of Lopes—known as Elias Maluco, or Crazy Elias, because of his cruelty.

Amidst so much bad news, the arrest of Maluco was regarded as a success. And it indeed was. The news announced it as the result of a joint action by society, good policemen and the press. The operation involved helicopters, dozens of vehicles, intelligence services, anonymous tips from the population, and more than 250 policemen per shift. The police did not shoot anybody. It was undoubtedly a model to be followed in the future.

However, authorities and experts remain realistic. "Operations like this one are unlikely to be the norm in Rio," opined Veja. Maranhão Costa agrees: "Unfortunately this was an exception. I do not believe the same would have happened if bandits had killed a journalist of a small newspaper or any other anonymous person."

In order for this success to be the norm, the police should be entirely reformed. Also, Maranhão Costa continues, "there should be more participation of the State, more social inclusion and less police violence, so that the population regain their trust in this institution. The way it is now, the police is not the solution. It is part of the problem."

Rio's drug lords are still way too far from being definitely beaten. Because of its complexity—drugs, poverty, corruption—violence is unlikely to be reduced until a long term and broad-based reform is made, not only in Rio, but in all big cities—which, by the way, can have the same problem in the future if measures are not taken in time. This is undoubtedly one of the major challenges for the next government, since successful actions are still isolated cases. Sadly, the arrest of Elias Maluco does not guarantee his retirement from crime. After all, after Costa's successful rebellion in a maximum-security penitentiary, who can guarantee Maluco will stay quiet in jail?


… so far 1.2 million spectators packed movie theaters throughout Brazil to watch City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles, one of the best recent Brazilian motion pictures. Based on the book written by Paulo Lins, who used to live in the shantytown City of God, in Rio, the movie is an epic of drug trafficking and violence in slums.

This is also why the events including Fernandinho Beira Mar and Elias Maluco have had so many repercussions. City of God has opened society's eyes to the problem of drugs and violence through its mesmerizing scenes and attention-grabbing plot, and it has encouraged discussions among students, actors, and the media in general. "Everything in the movie is real. The difference is that things are now on the screen. I live this reality, although I am not part of it," says Jonathan Haagensen, 19, one of the inhabitants of the Vidigal slum, who acted in the movie.

This is due to many factors, but especially because people see the movie as realistic, even though the story takes place in the 1970s and early 1980s. One glaring similarity between reality and fiction is police corruption. Buscapé, the narrator of the story and one of the inhabitants who manages to escape from a criminal fate, becomes a photographer at the end of the movie. He witnesses some policemen receiving money from Zé Pequeno, the most dangerous drug trafficker of the shanty town. He then takes many pictures of the scene, but gives up on publishing them as he thinks this would put his life at risk.

Another similarity is the use of firearms among children and teenagers. In the film, little children were "hired" by Zé Pequeno and other traffickers to help them in their businesses. They all had their own guns, and they grew up so used to them and so familiar with shots that, in the end, they have no problem in killing their boss. Matheus Nachtergaele, who played the role of another powerful drug lord, said that "the hardest thing in this movie, for me, was the presence of guns. We recorded with fake guns, but, still, I got very disturbed by them. The children were all excited, and I became like a baby sitter for them, telling them to be careful," he said in an interview with TV Cultura.

The film has violent scenes and in many ways it is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, for the conflicts, drugs issue, humor, and shocking scenes. In City of God, the most disturbing scene is when Zé Pequeno shoots two little children and forces a ten-year-old to kill another one, even younger than him. Meirelles admits that this was one of the most difficult scenes to record, both for actors and the crew.

City of God is very timely. "All presidential candidates should watch the film before elaborating their government plan. It is a civic duty," said Zuenir Ventura, a columnist for Rio's daily O Globo. PT presidential candidate, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, did his homework, as did president Cardoso. Mr da Silva was impressed: "everyone should watch the movie in order to understand Brazil," he commented with approval. Cardoso, according to Época weekly magazine, was so impressed that he wanted the limit age of the audience to be reduced to 14 (it is 16 now), so that more young people could watch it.

Ironically enough, the film was so successful among people in favelas that it also helped the police arrest one of the leaders of one gang in the Cidade Alta shanty town. He was arrested when he was in line to buy the tickets at a pre-screening of the movie.

Carolina Berard is a translator in Brazil. She worked as a translator and journalist for the portal MultARTE Brazilian Culture - - and has translated texts on various subjects ranging from economic integration to popular culture in Brazil. She is currently doing freelance translations and articles for several publications. Her email:  or

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