Czar of Rio’s Underworld

        of Rio's Underworld

If Rio’s new Public Security Secretary, Anthony Garotinho, makes an impression and reduces the city’s appalling crime rate, the road will be open once again for the next presidential race. Garotinho could win this fight against crime by using his populist approach. He is a former radio host and an evangelist.
by: John Fitzpatrick

One of the most surprising results of last year’s presidential election was the performance of Anthony Garotinho, who came third, with around 17 percent of the vote in the first round. His performance was impressive because he was a late starter in the race, and his political base—the PSB (Partido Socialista Brasileiro – Brazilian Socialist Party)—was weak compared with those of the other three candidates. At one point, there were even expectations that he would pull out of the race, as his campaign had literally run out of cash. However, Garotinho—which means “little boy” in Portuguese—stayed on course and ended up ahead of the other outsider, Ciro Gomes of the PPS (Partido Popular Socialista – Popular Socialist Party).

This week, Garotinho has bounced back into the headlines, as he was named to one of Brazil’s toughest jobs—that of Secretary of Public Security in Rio de Janeiro state. While most observers would regard this as a poisoned chalice, the ever-confident Garotinho has seized it, perhaps because it was offered by his wife who is now state governor, but also certainly because, if he makes an impression and reduces or ends Rio’s appalling crime, the road will be open once again for the next presidential race.

Over the last six months or so, the city of Rio de Janeiro has experienced a crime wave that, at times, has looked like a challenge to the state. There has been much talk of Brazil becoming a second Colombia, but this is an exaggeration. Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of Brazil’s most infamous criminal—a drug trafficker known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar who was extradited from Colombia, where he had been involved with left-wing guerrilla groups. Beira-Mar is currently in prison, although few would be surprised if he were freed in a jailbreak.

The ongoing crime wave has seen official buildings attacked by machine gun fire and hand grenades, while other prominent spots such as famous hotels and even the cable car to Corcovado have been targets. Commerce in whole neighborhoods, including upper class tourist areas like Ipanema and Copacabana, has shut down en masse after being ordered to do so by gangsters. Two senior judges have been murdered, along with large numbers of policemen and, of course, civilians. Things became so bad that in March, the army was brought in to handle part of the security at this year’s Carnaval.  

Mission Impossible? Not for Garotinho…

Can Garotinho do anything to halt this? I think he can, and give him a 50-50 chance of bringing off Mission Impossible. My reasons may strike the onlooker outside Brazil as a little cynical. But I am sure most Brazilians would understand them.

First of all, levels of crime in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, as a whole, will always be high as long as society is so unfair. Brazilians are used to this and take appropriate measures, such as living in apartment blocks with 24-hour security, carrying minimal amounts of cash and valuables, driving armor-plated cars or hiring bodyguards if they are rich enough, and being constantly aware of danger.

No one expects Garotinho to end crime in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilians are also aware that in many cases, the police are even involved in criminal activities, as are politicians and civil servants. For example, an investigation is under way involving top-level officials from Garotinho’s own former state administration, which preceded the current one headed by his wife. The officials are alleged to have been involved in money laundering and sending funds to Swiss banks. Garotinho, of course, has denied any knowledge of these events, yet few people in Rio de Janeiro have complained that this former governor, whose administration is accused of crime, has now become the new crime buster.

Carrot and Stick Approach Could Reduce Crime…

Garotinho, therefore, does not need to end crime—just reduce the current, at times spectacular wave of crime. By forcing or persuading gangsters to stop attacking high profile targets, he can claim success. He has already spoken of rooting out police corruption, putting more police on the beat, and trying to keep young people from becoming involved in drugs, but it is doubtful if measures like these will make any difference.

Where Garotinho could win is by using his populist approach and communications skills. He is a former radio host, a man with simple solutions to complex questions, an evangelist, and—like the TV entrepreneur who runs Brazil’s second-largest network, Silvio Santos—has credibility among the poorer, less educated section of society. He could work openly by publicly offering to meet gang leaders, perhaps in their favela strongholds, and making some kind of public peace treaty.

Obviously the criminals would need some sort of amnesty or pardon, but that would not be difficult for someone with Garotinho’s chutzpah. He could visit Beira-Mar in jail, and persuade the gang boss to issue some type of appeal for peace. While this would scandalize respectable Brazilian society, it would show the poor that at least someone was facing reality and negotiating with the leaders of what is a powerful force. Alternatively, Garotinho could arrange a secret deal in which crime bosses were either bribed to lay off a bit, or granted some alternative benefits. 

Coming Soon—The (Little) Boys from Brazil…

One thing is certain: win or lose, Garotinho will be around for a long time. He is a professional politician who can come back after a beating. He has amazing self-confidence, and from what he has shown the public so far, a complete lack of a sense of humor. He actually does believe the nonsense he speaks. 

He loves to make simplistic gestures and fantasy statements—such as the cheap restaurants he set up in Rio offering meals for R$1 (about US$0.33), or his claim during the election campaign that he would reduce interest rates to a single digit. He also claims God appeared to him after he was involved in an accident. Brazilians beware: Garotinho is only 43 years old, and could easily be around for another 30 years. As he said in an interview with the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper: “I can be a (presidential) candidate in three, eight or 12 years’ time. Sixteen years from now, I will be the same age as Lula. Time is on my side.”

Unfortunately, this is not bombast but the truth. To make things worse, not only is Garotinho’s wife a senior politician with national recognition, but the couple has nine children. That’s a lot of up-and-coming “little boys”, certainly enough to start yet another of Brazil’s all too common political dynasty, like the Magalhães in Bahia, the Sarneys in Maranhão and the Neves family in Minas Gerais.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at  

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

This article appeared originally in Infobrazil, at 




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