From Lampião to Zé Bonito: Brazil’s Vast Gallery of Good Thieves

Lampião The grotesque adage that “a good thief is a dead thief” is common knowledge among media and institutional advocates for police omnipresence in Brazilian society. The tupiniquim (a common term in Brazil, which refers to native Tupiniquim Indians, often used in a self-deprecating, mocking context) adaptation of the equally grotesque Yankee phrase “a good Indian is a dead Indian.” 

It’s worth mentioning, however, that such does not have widespread acceptance by residents in the outskirts of major metropolitan areas. Entangled in the affable arms of popular folklore, this popular character is spreading the word that he is doing just fine, thank you!

The good thief figure has been a presence in the western imaginary scene since Ancient Times; nonetheless, it was in the hands of the medieval Robin Hood the more crafted role of the humanistic malefactor. Sort of a dubious hero – who is bad in order to bring on good – his image not only became popular worldwide but also outlived the test of time. Amidst us, particularly in public spheres, he has been revived and reinvented in character, works, and deeds of all kinds of outlaws.

In Mexico, for example, such is the status of Jesus Malverde, who in the first quarter of the 20th century was the most feared criminal in the outskirts of Mexico City. Today, seen as the most popular secular saint in the country, he is also known as the protector of narcotraffickers. According to spoken accounts (there are no written records about the thief’s life), Malverde, despite capable of the cruelest crimes, had an inclination for noble and Christian gestures.

Aside the fact of stealing, robbing, and even killing only people from the elites and the government, donating part of the surpluses, he committed himself – like Christ had done so – to martyrdom, only to prove his loyalty to humble working people. When fatally wounded by bullets, he made two requests to one of his men: first, to deliver him to the police only when the reward for his head had tripled; second, the reward should be divided among the poor. His martyrdom went on for months until he was finally arrested.

Today, millions of devotees visit his grave, where supposedly he was buried. They come from many places around Mexico, as well as from abroad, such as, for example, Colombia, (Medellin and Cali, mostly) and Los Angeles, USA. Among the pilgrims are narcotrafficking chieftains. At least that is the indication from the generous gifts in cash and from the profiles of the devotees.

Our Thieves and Outlaws

In its own peculiar way, Brazil also has a gallery of criminals. It’s an original gallery, enameled. The collection includes real and fictitious characters. Some have nationwide recognition due to the repercussions of their accomplishments, as well as the exaggerations by their enemies.

Topping the list is Virgulino Lampião, Antonio Conselheiro, Antônio Silvino, Corisco, Dadá, and other cangaceiros (bandits from the Sertão, the northeastern semi-arid and impoverished region of Brazil) and religious leaders, whose own stories are directly linked to the Sertão history, especially as they relate to the most pronounced contrasting issues.

Other names come to mind, such as Madame Satã, Dente de Prata, Gato Preto, Lúcio Flávio, Charles Anjo-45, and more recently, some traffickers from the favelas (shantytowns) in Rio and São Paulo.

In speaking of favela traffickers, an important figure is José Carlos dos Reis Encina, known throughout the country as Escadinha, killed, in Rio, on his way back from the detention house, where he did time in a semi-open regime. He was perceived by the community as generous; but as dangerous by the general public, particularly the police.

Because of his misadventures, he earned honors from the samba school Bezerra da Silva as well as in a number of rappers’ lyrics. Songs that speak of Escadinha’s virtues – feed the poor children of Livramento Hill and punish those who were stealing from workers, for example – or his defiance, displayed in a helicopter escape attempt from the Ilha Grande Penitentiary, Rio, in 1985.

Nonetheless, there is a group of this kind of malefactors that, despite relative obscurity, have a rich and poetic history. Such is the case, for example, of Pé de Veludo, crime man – today saint – in the Marília, São Paulo state, region, who ransacked mansions, redirecting the “proceeds” toward improvements around the community.

The nickname is derived from the ability he possessed of getting in and out of homes leaving no traces behind, without being noticed by the owners, who often were asleep as he went about his business.

Zé Bonito and Jocenir

In criminal literature and music, it’s important to point out that good thieves – overlooking their superficial differences – have a great deal in common. In most cases, they come from humble beginnings or are upwardly moving in social status; their only contact with the criminal world takes place through neighbors or some family relative involved in crime.

Zé Bonito, for example, from the movie “City of God”, prior to becoming an outlaw, was a solid and upright individual, despite living in an environment dominated by traffickers and robbers of all sorts. The life of a common citizen is narrated this way:

“José worked as a bus fare collector, gave Karate lessons at the Military Police Eighteenth Battalion, was finishing high school at night at Praça Seca public school, and played soccer every Saturday afternoon – the only time he was around people of his own age, since he was not much of a buddy-buddy type. He really preferred to be on his own to avoid trouble. Because he was considered a very good looking favela man, he was surrounded by girls, to the extent that he got the nickname Zé Bonito (Joe Handsome).” (Lins, 2002:308-9)

As a matter of fact, good looks and intelligence were assets of the good thief Jocenir, “Diary of an Inmate”, who, before being arrested, had held executive posts at many multinational corporations. These qualities will not only make life easier in prison but also make him somewhat of a personality amongst the inmate population.

Jocenir fell into the criminal world, experiencing its most inhumane aspect – prison -, consequence of a police sting operation aimed at his brother. Transported to the precinct, after being caught at stolen goods warehouse, he was pressured to sign a confession for the receipt of the merchandise:

“Perplexity. I said I couldn’t understand what was going on because they all knew I had nothing to do with that cargo in the warehouse. I said that the person in charge at the warehouse was my brother, and that he had already come forth with his attorney, hours earlier; they exchanged some nice words, had coffee, and then he left. The cold and cynical sheriff stated that either I pay up the bill, or else the entire precinct …” (Jocenir, 2001:34).

Zé Bonito’s debut in the life of crime also occurred by near fate, not as a result of social status or a deliberate act, but due to an unshakable thirst of vengeance for the rape of his fiancée, by the drug dealer Zé Miúdo (Tiny Joe). The plunge transpired gradually and is narrated from the subjective vantage point of a transformed and unsettled character. First, the transformation of pain and suffering into uncontrollable hatred is described:

“He couldn’t lie down, belly up, as he used to, and stare at the ceiling, such was the pain he felt in the back of his neck. He could barely blink an eye. While roaming around the streets, he felt anger and shame. There in bed, these two emotions took on new impulse.

“Miúdo’s penis precisely going in and out of his beloved’s vagina, the woman chosen to be his wife; with whom he had desired to make love incessantly, but awaited the wedding ceremony so that it could happen. That miserable had deflowered his sweetheart like a retro-excavator.

“The thought of his girlfriend struggling to free herself from her abuser weighed in his mind, while the man slapped her face, knocked her in the back, to quiet her down, and the stream of blood flowing out of her vagina.” (Lins, 2002:309)

Next, the embodiment of hatred and vengeance is narrated:

“He turned around, his body was trembling. How can a man carry out such an atrocity? And particularly against him, a man incapable of any cruelty, never into fights, and never harmful to anyone? His head ached by the beat of his pulse. He had hoped that his acquaintance would not relate the episode to anybody; he regretted telling him of the rape case.

“He would keep it secret until giving that worm a great beating. Had he enough money he would move out of there the next day. Each time that scene replayed in his mind, the urge to cry was pervasive. But he would not cry; he only tightened his muscles. The face itched. A bloody taste in his mouth. A need to stand up, get a gun, and make Zé Miúdo bleed.” (Lins, 2002:309)

That is how Zé Bonito, the handsome black man with blue eyes, turned into an outlaw. But a humane, generous, and commiserate one. Despite his participation in the Cenoura’s trafficking crew, with whom he had allied himself to avenge Zé Miúdo, he was against drug dealing, robberies, recruiting children into the crime war; he protected residents in the “territory” of violence from other criminals, counseled parents about educating their kids, and mourned the bodies of friends killed in gang battles.

Dimas: The First Crazy Life in History [1]

In Brazilian popular black music, many songs deal with the good thief issue. But for methodology reasons, such as, for example, scope and representation, we will limit ourselves to speak of the song “Vida Loka” (Crazy Life), by the São Paulo rap group MC’s.

We should begin by saying that “Vida Loka” is inserted within the context of a double album whose music, theme and structure, refer to a play on metaphors that combine biblical scenes with day-to-day experiences, in order to make up a set of analogies and parallels between the favela people and the persecuted people of Israel and/or black slaves; between the man from the outskirts and Dimas, the repentant and forgiven criminal by Christ on the cross. [2]

Thus, the rich selfish and racist will be viewed, just like pharaohs and feudal lords, as persecutors and oppressors of the humble and poor, who have God as their protector and rap as weapon:

” Hey,/ feudal Lord/ I know/ Well who you are/ Alone/ You can’t take it/ Alone/ You can’t stay on your feet/ You said you were good/ And the favela listened/ Whiskey and Red Bull/ Nike shoes/ Rifle/ I admit/ Your cars is pretty/ And I can’t do/ Internet, Video-cassette/ The crazy cars/Running behind I know I am a little/ I am/I think so/But/ Your game is dirty/ I don’t fit in/ I’m a big problem/ From Carnaval to Carnaval/ I came from the jungle/ I’m a lion/ Too much for the backyard. Hey big man/ Who makes you so good/ What did you give/ What do you do/ What did you do for me/ I got you Tic/ I mean Kit/ Of open air sewage/ And wooden walls/ Of shame I didn’t die/ I’m solid/ Here I am/ Not you/ You can’t cross it/ When the Red Sea opens.” (Negro Drama, 2002)

“Hey,/ Senhor de engenho,/ Eu sei,/ Bem quem é você,/ Sozinho, se num guenta,/ Sozinho,/ Se num guenta a peste,/ e disse que era bom,/ E a favela ouviu, la/ tambem tem/ Whiski, e Red Bull,/ Tênis Nike,/ Fuzil,/ Admito,/ Seus carro é bonito,/ Hé,/ E eu não sei fazer,/ Internet, Video-cassete,/ Os carro loko,/ Atrasado,/ Eu to um pouco se,/ To,/ Eu acho sim,/ Só que tem que,/ Seu jogo é sujo,/ E eu não me encaixo,/ Eu so problema de montão,/ De carnaval a carnaval,/ Eu vim da selva,/ So leão,/ So demais pro seu quintal,/  Hey bacana,/ Quem te fez tão bom assim,/ O que se deu,/ O que se faz,/ O que se fez por mim,/ Eu recebi seu Tic,/ Quer dizer Kit,/ De esgoto a céu aberto,/ E parede madeirite,/ De vergonha eu não morri,/ To firmão,/ Eis-me aqui,/ Voce não,/ Se não passa,/ Quando o mar vermelho abrir,”

But the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is described ironically, wherein a turnaround is inevitable:

“Problems with school/ I have a thousand/ A thousand tape/ Incredible, but my son imitates me/ Among you all/ He swings, says slang/ Slang not dialect/ That isn’t his any longer/Hey/ It went up/ I entered through the radio/ I took it and you didn’t notice/ We’re this, that/ What/ You didn’t say/ Your son wants to be black/ Hey/ How ironic/ Hangs Tupac’s poster up/ Uouh/ How about that/ What say you/ Feel the Negro Drama/ Go/ Try being happy.” (Negro Drama, 2002)

“Problema com escola,/ Eu tenho mil,/ Mil fita,/ Inacreditavel, mas seu filho me imita,/ No meio de vocês,/ Ele é o mais esperto,/ Ginga e fala giria,/ Giria não dialeto,/ Esse nao é mais seu,/ Hó,/ Subiu,/ Entrei pelo seu rádio,/ Tomei,/ Se nem viu,/ Mais é isso ou aquilo,/ O Que,/ Senão dizia,/ Seu filho quer ser Preto,/ Rhá,/ Que ironia,/ Cola o pôster do 2 Pac ai,/ Que tal,/ Que se diz,/ Sente o NEGRO DRAMA,/ Vai,/ Tenta ser feliz,”

Deep inside, in the work collection, Dimas acts as the redeeming allegory of all the mistakes and faults of the man from the favelas and outskirts, involved in criminal life, but aware of the weight and the responsibility he carries for being in that position; position which must be expiated to overcome the conflict between him and the law, his conscience and actions, and his flesh and spirit.

And overcoming only takes place at that moment when the sinner/favela man, within the context of a crazy and absurd life, recognizes himself as a warrior, whose acts and deeds are (self) justified in daily battles against the power that oppresses those from the ghetto:

“Hot it’s a Thousand Degree/ What the warrior says/ The prosecutor is only a man/ God is the judge/ While Joe Little People stoned the cross/ A uniformed crook/ Spit on Jesus/ Hey…/ In the eleventh hour of regret/ Saved and forgiven/ IT’S DIMAS, the criminal.” (V.L, 2002)

[1] Specialists aren’t unanimous as to the origin of Dimas, the saved and repentant thief; but certain aspects of his life are correct: 1 – He was a dangerous criminal from Palestine, born in a family of thieves. His father was the chieftain bandit – “Princeps Latronum.” 2 – He performed crime in the desert on the passage to Egypt, and then, according to tradition, met the Sacred Family, giving shelter to Jesus the Child and protection to Mary and Joseph. 3 – Despite a big time outlaw, he had the habit of not stealing from or even killing children, the elderly, and women.

[2] Based on Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified between two thieves: Gestas and Dimas. While the first insulted Him, Dimas asked for forgiveness and glorified Him. The dialogue in the scene of Christ and the criminals is described in the following manner: “One of the crucified criminals was insulting him, saying: ‘Are you the Messiah? Save yourself and us too!’ But the other corrected him, saying: ‘Not even you fear God, suffering the same condemnation? To us it is just, because we’re getting what we deserve; but he didn’t do anything bad.’ And added: ‘Jesus, remember me, when coming to your Kingdom.’ Jesus replied: ‘I guarantee you: later today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke, v. 23, 1990).

José Apóstolo Netto is an historian with a Doctorate Degree in History from UNESP – São Paulo State University, Assis Campus. Author’s email:

Article published originally in Portuguese in Espaço Acadêmico



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