Brazil’s Number One Thug: Saint Nem, Neither Comedian Nor Martyr

Nem In a war operation that used 7 helicopters, 18 armored cars and about 3,000 man, authorities in Rio, have taken back from the drug Mafia, the favela (slum) of Rocinha, the city’s largest shantytown, with 70,000 residents. For the last 6 year, law, prime minister and king in Rocinha was 34 year old Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, aka Nem,  chief of the drug trafficking gang Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends). All with the help of a corrupt police.

Nem was arrested last week while trying to flee the slum. A few days before being caught by the police he had given an interview to weekly magazine Época’s reporter Ruth de Aquino, which we reproduce below.

In this conversation he sounds more like a reasonable and even kind guy instead of the mean gangster capable of killing in cold blood anyone who would dare cross his path.  Nem also seems a battle-weary warrior, ready to surrender and dreaming of taking his son to the zoo without fear of being chased or killed. What follows is the interview:
It was Friday, November 4. I came to Street 2 at 6 pm. There, in a dead-end street, is the house recently purchased by Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, Nem, for 115,000 reais (US$ 65,000). Only a ten-minute drive separates my house in the asphalt from the heart of Rocinha. Through contacts in the favela (slum) with a church that recovers junkies, drug dealers and prostitutes, I had arranged a meeting with Nem. At age 35, he was the head of the traffic in the slum for six years. He was the hill’s owner.

I wanted to understand the man behind the myth as the city’s “number one enemy.” Nem is called “president” by those who live with him. He’s feared and courted. On Tuesdays, he used to receive the community to hear about claims and disputes. Friday was payday. I was told he used to sleep by day and work at night – and that is very close to his mother, with whom he goes out arm in arm, to talk and drink beer. He bought several houses in recent times and there were strong rumors that he was going to surrender to police soon.

As soon as I arrived, I was told I had just seen him by the ping-pong table in the street. Everyone knew I was an “outsider” from the other side of the invisible wall, on the asphalt. Ditches and a mountain of garbage at the corner show the abandonment of a street that used to have a police station, now closed. An empty tin zips buzzing close to my face – it had been tossed out by a girl on a short who passed on a motorcycle.

I waited for three hours, I was taken to different places. My middlemen were nervous because “heads would roll if I had a little button on my clothing to record or a hidden camera.” I ended up asking: “Isn’t there a switch over? Shouldn’t I be the nervous and scared one?”

At 9 pm, on the back of a motorcycle taxi, without helmet, I went up through potholed and dark alleys, getting too close for comfort to buses and listening to Rocinha’s noise, a mixture of funk, blasting speakers and televisions sets in bars. I bumped into the blonde Danube, Nem’s current wife, with her long hair up to her waist, piloting an orange motorbike. I went up to the top, in Vila Verde, and had my first surprise.

I didn’t meet Nem in a messy dark room, surrounded by armed men. The scenario could not be more innocent. It was public, well lit and open: Rocinha’s new soccer field, with synthetic grass. Children and adults were playing. The sky was filled with stars and the scenery showed the lights of the shacks that are home to 70,000 residents. Nem was getting ready to take to the field.

He had bandaged with lots of patch his right ankle. He hardly looked at me during this ritual. He talked to a pastor about an addicted 22-year old guy: “You got him, pastor? You cannot give up. The church can never quit someone’s recovery. Geez, he was clean, drug free, he had found a job … tell me later, “said Nem. He put the big socks, then the ankle support over it and got up looking me face to face.

It was the second surprise. Tall, dark and muscular, very different from the image spread in the media, as a skinny boy with bleached pompadour and a mean laughter, like the Joker. Nem is the father of seven children. “Two of them adopted me, they call me dad and ask for my blessing.”

The youngest is a baby with Danúbia, who set up a beauty salon, he said “with a bank loan, she’s repaying in installments.” Nem is a rabid Flamengo fan. But was wearing the blue and white colors of his favela team. Nike sleeveless shirt, cap, boots.

– In what position do you play, Nem? – I asked.

– The stubborn one – he said, laughing – I have a worn-out ankle and no one respects me in the field anymore .

It was a conversation of 30 minutes, standing. Polite, cool, he called me madam, didn’t use any bad word and did not comment on charges against him. He said he wouldn’t give an interview. “What for? No one will believe me, but I’m not the most dangerous thug in Rio.” He didn’t allow a tape recorder or pictures. My silence was kept until his arrest. Following the reconstitution of part of our conversation.

UPP (Pacifying Police Unit)

“Rio needed a project like this. Society is right to not tolerate armed thugs coming down from the hill to attack on the asphalt and then going back. Here in Rocinha there is no car theft, no one steals anything, but for a rare motorcycle. I do not like to see a bandit dressed in costume, with lots of guns dangling from his body. The UPP is an excellent project, but it has problems. Imagine the underpaid policemen, even the younger ones, controlling all the alleys of a favela. How many will not accept R$ 100 to ignore a drug dealer spot?”

Beltrame (Rio’s Security Secretary)

“One of the smartest guys I’ve ever known. If there were more guys like him, everything would be better. He says what needs to be said. The UPP is useless if there is only the police occupation. You must create gyms, schools, give people opportunity. How come Cuba has more medals than we have in the Olympics? If the son of a poor man could make the Enem exam with the same chance of a child of wealthy guy, he would go into drug trafficking. He would go to college.”


“I’m not going to hell. I always read the Bible, I ask my kids every day whether they went to school, try to prevent kids from entering the crime life, give money for food, rent, school, so they go away from here. I have cults at home, I call pastors. But I have no connection with any church. My connection is with God. I learned to pray as a little boy, with my dad. But only in the last seven years I began to understand the believers. I think God has a plan for me. He is going to open some door. “


“A life of crime is too bad. Me and a bunch wish to get off this. Good is being able to go to the beach, to the movies, to go out with your family without fear of being chased or killed. I’d like to sleep in peace. To take my son to the zoo. I’m afraid not to be there for my kids. Because the father has more authority than the mother. When he says no this means no. In Colombia, they took thousands of FARC guerrillas from a life of crime because  they gave them amnesty and  an opportunity to integrate into mainstream society. I’m not asking for amnesty. I wish to pay my debt to society.”


“I do not use drugs and I drink only with friends. I think that in less than 20 years marijuana will be legal in Brazil. In the US, it almost is. Ever wonder how much companies would profit from this? They would swallow drug trafficking. I don’t deal crack and I don’t allow people to bring crack to Rocinha. Because it destroys people, families and the entire community. I know people who use cocaine for 30 years and still function. But give them crack an they start attacking and stealing everything they find.”


“I sent to Cidade de Deus’s recovery house prostitute girls, addicted boys. In order not to prostitute themselves nor become ill with AIDS these kids need to have a family and a future. The UPP, to succeed, needs to guarantee the social inclusion of these people. So says  Beltrame. And I tell all those close to me who are in drug trafficking: the time is now. Whoever wishes to recover should go to church and surrender to pay what they owe and then be saved.”


“My idol is Lula. I adore Lula. He was the one who fought crime with more success. Because of Rocinha’s PAC (Growth Acceleration Program) 50 of my men left drug trafficking to work in those projects. Do you know how many returned to crime? No one. Because they saw they had a job and a future in civil construction.”


“I pay a lot every month to policemen. But I have more policemen friends than police officers I pay. They know what I say: no shooting at police who get inside the favela. They are all parents, they are sent here, why should they be shot for no reason?”


“I know they say I entered the drug trade because of my daughter. She was 10 months old and had a very rare disease, had to put a catheter, an expensive thing and Lulu (former boss) loaned me the money. But I prefer to say that I got involved with drug trafficking because I became involved. Anyway, it doesn’t pay.”

Nem was eager to play soccer. Had just left the gym where he lifts weights. He didn’t ask me to leave, but I realized my time was up. I went down walking. It took me a long time to go to sleep.

Ruth de Aquino is a Brazilian journalist.


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