Brazil - Culture
The Favelas: gangs, violence & society
The author examines the role of gangs and drugs in the favelas of Brazil. He focuses mainly on the favelas of Rio de Janeiro by analyzing its origins, the role of drugs and the impact of gangs in the favela communities. The paper also draws a comparison of these gangs with organized crime in Mumbai. Manan Sanghvi, from Mumbai.
“Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it”
Henry Thomas Buckle
Criminals, Violence and Gangs are the by-products of an ineffective social system and Brazil is no stranger to it. Apartheid, social exclusion, authoritative governance and disregard for the poor have all been imperative in the emergence of the street gangs in the cities of Brazil. The violence of the gangs reflects their ambitions to feel belonged and to be respected as equals in a biased society. Most importantly it reflects their basic human instinct to improve their life styles which has been ignored by Brasília for over a century now. It comes as no surprise that the violent street gangs have emerged in the pockets of Brazilian poverty, the Favelas.
Cidade de Deus, the 2002 Brazilian movie based on semi-fictional events traces the life of gangster Li’l Ze as he rises to become the dono or boss of a notorious street gang in the favela of Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro. The film shows in vivid detail how the street gangs in the favelas operate and how the children of the favelas are exposed to violence, drugs and crime at a very early age. Tropa de Elite, a 2007 Brazilian movie exposes the deep rooted corruption in the police forces of Brazil and how the street gangs flourish through the support and inactivity of the administrative powers. The film exposes the high levels of gun use in the street gangs and how they operate and run parallel governments within the favela boundaries. The epic movie Orfeu Negro (1959) and Bus 174 (2002) on the other hand, sketch a picture of the society in the favelas and how drastic physical and social conditions affect the personality and decision making of individuals. Bus 174 traces the life of one man, Sandro Nascimento who was raised on the streets of Rio. He was part of the many youth street gangs, and how his life, shaped by the excessive use of drugs, violence and social exile led him to a violent death. Although these movies are cinematic representations, the ground reality is not very different. Today, many of the favelas in Brazil have become small illegitimate territories, where the government can exercise little or no authority. Street gangs, with advanced weaponry control administrate the favelas as a safe haven to carry on their illegitimate drug and arm trades.
The paper aims at discussing origins and the major factors responsible for the state of violence that exists in the streets of Brazil today and the impact it has on its social structure. It also discusses the corrective actions taken by the President Lula’s government.
Origins of the favelas
The first favela was started in Brazil in 1897 by the troops returning from the War of Canudos (1893-1897). 20,000 troops who had fought and won the deadliest civil war in Brazilian history against Antonio Conselheiro in Bahia were brought and stranded in Rio de Janeiro without accommodation. Tired of failed government promises of providing them a home, the soldiers took over a nearby hill called Gamboa to build themselves shanties to live in. The soldiers called the place Morro da Favela, after the hill where they had camped just before launching their offensive against Conselheiro’s forces. Short after its name was changed to Providencia. Favela originally refers to a shrub found in abundance on Morro da Favela.
After the abolition of slavery in 1888, a wave of recently freed black slaves primarily from north-east Brazil flocked to urban centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Some of the older favelas were originally started as quilombos (independent settlements of fugitive African slaves) among the hilly terrain of the area surrounding Rio.
The 20th century has seen a phenomenal influx of rural immigrants who started populating the cities mostly in the favelas due to poverty and social non-acceptance. At the beginning of the century, less than one in five Brazilians lived in the cities. Today nearly 4 in five Brazilians inhabit urban regions with the south west regions of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro drawing the most sizable immigration. The explosive era of favela growth dates from the 1940s, when Getúlio Vargas' industrialization drive pulled hundreds of thousands of migrants into the Federal District. Most of the current favelas began in the 1970s, as a construction boom in the richer neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro initiated a rural exodus of workers from poorer states in Brazil. Since favelas have been created under different terms but with similar end results, the term favela has become generally interchangeable with any impoverished areas.
In the 1950’s favelas began forming Resident Associations known as Associações de Moradores (AM’s). AM leaders resolved conflicts through systems of legal reasoning internal to favelas and presided over dramatic mutirão (cooperative building) projects that provided basic infrastructure to their region.
Cocaine was observed in favela society as back as 1910. But the 1970’s saw an explosion in drug use with large scale smuggling from neighbor Colombia.
Drugs like cocaine were observed in favela society as back as 1910. But the 1970’s saw an explosion in drug use with large scale smuggling from neighbor Colombia. The system of the Resident Associations began to crumble as drug trafficking grew and drug traders, usually the poor uneducated people from the favelas started getting involved in drug distribution. Drug traffickers grew in power during the 1980’s and 1990’s when the nation’s economy was experiencing severe inflation. During that phase, non-profits pulled out and the AM’s developed alliances with the drug traffickers. Even the role of the Catholic and Pentecostal churches, which were traditionally powerful in the favela society diminished in power.
The gangs of the favelas
The favelas of Brazil were not traditionally violent and subversive. The origins of their violence and the creation of gangs in Rio de Janeiro are interestingly found in the political scenario of Brazil. Under the successive military regimes between 1969 and 1985, the public rights were severely curtailed. In 1979, left wing political radicals were held together with criminals at the Cândido Mendes prison on Ilha Grande, in the sea west of Rio. Also known as Devil’s Island, guerillas and political radicals were held in this prison during the military dictatorship. On the Devil’s Island, an alliance was formed between the guerillas and the criminals and the Comando Vermelho or the Red Command was formed. The Red Command is the oldest and most powerful of Rio’s narco-mafia.
The Red Command was based on Marxist principles with the motto “Peace, Justice and Freedom” which the gang retains to this date. But after the restoration of Brazil’s democracy, Marxism no longer remained their agenda. Today the organization has purely criminal interests mainly drug supply and distribution and arms trade.
Drug gangs have hierarchical systems just like corporate companies. Favela chiefs are gerentes gerais or general managers, their deputies are sub-gerentes, the top gang bosses are donos or owners. The general manager usually has a small army under his command. The average age of the people enlisted is usually 15 to 18. The gangs recruit youngsters luring them with power, respect and money. Growing up poor in the favelas, kids find social acceptance and a chance to improve their life styles under the helm of the drug gangs.
Rio is one of the very few cities of the world where you have whole areas controlled by armed forces that are not of the state. Any one gang in the smallest of favelas has weapons that could rival a small army battalion. The street gangs are entropic, an anarchic group of young men and women who become criminals to earn respect and a better lifestyle.
According to Alfredo Sirkis, a former guerilla and the member of Brazil’s Green Party, the spread of Rio’s gangs is like the radicalization of Muslim societies. He says: “There is a culture that permits the constant reproduction of younger and younger recruits…..You have a social situation that generates a certain kind of person and creates an example that is emulated by the boys who are young, and that example is a trafficker with his AR-15 and his Nike shoes. It’s a way to become a man. The girls notice him and he can fight his enemies who are youths like him”. Every year, the gangsters get younger and younger getting a young as ten. Sirkis adds “(...) like a middle ages phenomenon, feudalism and warlordism without any purpose other than living day to day. It is a low-intensity, non ideological insurgency”.
The organizations have historically provided the favela residents with minimal social services such as financial assistance for funerals, water services and vans to take students and residents from stores and hospitals (Gay 2005, Arias 2004). They provide administrative services which are restricted to control other criminal activities against favelados, usually by brutal violence and keeping order. They would also provide financial support to non-profit organizations to provide medical care in the favelas. They would support organizations providing education, food and shelter to the street kids. The gangs would finance and organize Bailes Funk or parties attended by youths from outside the favelas, from o asfalto or “the asphalt” which refer to the legally constituted parts of the city. They would support and endorse the Catholic and Pentecostal churches doing social work in the favelas. They even support local football clubs and provide financing for them to play.
In comparison, the government is looked at with vehemence; with the administration paying little or no attention to the needs of the favelados and excluding them from social policies. The police, with their aggressive and violent stance have added to the anti-establishment feeling generally felt by all the favelados.
These reasons have allowed the gangs to be endorsed and even loved and respected in the favelas. The gangs, in return for lei do silêncio or the law of silence protect them against the “oppressive government”.
Roles of drugs in the favelas
Before the 1980’s drug trafficking played only a minor role in the favelas. The most important criminals operating in favelas engaged in illegal activities such as jogo do bicho or animal games. Drug traffickers for most part dealt in marijuana and were lightly armed carrying knives, navalhas (straight-edged razors) and occasionally 38-calibre revolvers (Dowdney 2003). In the mid-1980’s Rio emerged as the trans-shipment hub for Andean cocaine en route to Europe and America. As narcotics poured into the cities, small time drug peddlers began supplying cocaine and through these activities gained heavier arms and began to compete to take over control over the valuable bocas de fumo (mouth of smoke). The “mouth of smoke” is a point, often located in the favelas on street intersections higher up the hills where people can purchase narcotics. These areas are very heavily guarded and government presence is completely absent. The gangs in possession with advanced armory usually control these points of sale. Over the next ten years prison based facções (factions) such as the Red Command gangs started controlling the bocas de fumo, mostly situated in the small inaccessible alleyways of the favela hills (Dowdney 2003, 29-32; Gay 2005, 55-56; Arias and Rodriguez 2006).
Unlike the export based drug cartels in Colombia or Mexico, Brazilian bandidos are wholesale importers of cocaine from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia and marijuana from Paraguay as well as managers of their own intricate distribution networks. They work in a complex hierarchal structure that mimics corporate entities. Some sources say that at least 100,000 people work for the drug gangs in Rio alone (Dowdney, 2003).
Violence, police and gun control
“One of the tests of the civilization of people is the treatment of its criminals.”
Rutherford B. Hayes
Brazil does not pass this test. In fact its performance is probably the worst in the world. Rio de Janeiro is the top ranked city in the world for violent intentional deaths. Rio’s police kill more people than anywhere else in the world. The police have acknowledged killing 1,188 people in 2008 “resisting arrest”. In comparison the American police killed 371 classified as “justifiable homicides”. Experts put the death toll by Brazilian police to be at least 3 times than published numbers. The society of the favelas is gripped with violence to such a degree that many experts feel that the favelados are numb to the death and violence happening around them. Some reporters covering the favelas of Rio have reported that exchange of automatic gun fire is a nearly daily occurrence.
The state is almost absent in the favelas. The drug gangs impose their own systems of justice, law and order and taxation - all by the force of arms. A black market in guns from other countries has abetted a mind-numbing violence. Rio’s gangsters have been caught with military issue machine guns and rocket launchers. Semi-automatic guns, and hand grenades are common place. Most of Brazilian gang weapons come illegally from the United States but reports show that Russian weapons are also been used these days.
The Brazilian law enforcement shares a large stake of the blame. 90% of the homicides go unresolved. In March 2005, 29 civilians were killed by an off-duty policeman in Northern Rio. Another incident that says the same horrific story is the Candelaria Massacre in 1993, which resulted in the event leading up to the events of Bus 174, where one of the survivors of the massacre hijacked a bus and the event ended in violence.
These acts of violence by the state have made them “enemies No 1” for the gangs. In fact beginning a decade ago, policemen and firefighters formed a militia in order to attack the gangs and murdering their members until they were wiped out. Over the years they have become militias in their own right. The violent rivalry between the gangs and police has increased to such an extent that according to one policeman “his police badge is his death certificate if found by the gangs”.
According to street gangs, the police have lost all credibility. According to a policeman in Rio, "Military Police (MP’s) are mostly corrupt, inexperienced themselves. The gangsters will hesitate, but they would still kill me”. He continues “The police have extermination contacts with the gangs. If they don’t pay, the police will exterminate them.”
The present day Mumbai’s criminal syndicate traces back its roots to illegal smuggling of opium and gold.
The Mumbai underworld: a comparative study
Although differences and comparisons can be drawn on the social and political factors that have molded the crime syndicates on these nations, the paper will restrict the comparative study to its activities and functionality.
The present day Mumbai’s criminal syndicate traces back its roots to illegal smuggling of opium and gold. India is geographically positioned at the cross roads of the west and the east maritime trade and Mumbai has been the major hub of maritime activities since the 1600’s. After achieving independence from Britain in 1947, the government of India worked towards sealing its doors to international trade to boost swadeshi or home grown produce. The global political scenario leading up from cold war in the 1960’s all the way up to 1991 also had a major role to play for such a political stance.
Smuggler’s formed syndicates to smuggle gold, silver, weaponry into India because of the huge demand and smuggle opium, diamonds and hawala or money transfers out of India. Most of these activities were carried out of Mumbai. These syndicates also started running illegal gambling rackets, prostitution rings and drug distribution networks throughout India with Mumbai being the epicenter. After trade liberalization in 1991 and law enforcement agencies adopting a stringent approach to the mafia syndicates, smuggling activities have reduced substantially. Presently, the criminal syndicates are involved in contract killings and extortion. Recently, Mumbai crime syndicates have invested heavily into the Mumbai Film Industry and construction industries.
Power has conventionally been in the hands of a few well organized gangs with the Dawood Ibrahim Gang, Chota Rajan Gang and Arun Gawli Gang being at the helm of most criminal activities in Mumbai today. Most of the criminal syndicates operate in Mafia-like organized structure with a well defined hierarchy and loyalty.
Perhaps the most important point of difference between gangs in Brazil and Mumbai is territorial encroachment. Favela gangs control and run parallel institutions of law and order in the region of their dominion. The Brazilian gangs have foot soldiers armed with sophisticated weaponry to guard their territories and operate their illegal activities smoothly and Brazilian gangs have frequent violent skirmishes with the law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, Mumbai’s mafia does not have well defined territories of activity. Although a note worthy exception is the Arun Gawli Gang, who is located in the Dagdi Chaal, which loosely resembles the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The foot soldiers of the Mumbai mafia are traditionally not heavily armed and have been known to avoid confrontational violence.
Another point of difference is the structure of the criminal organizations. Brazilian mafia is region-based and has a synergetic relationship with the inhabitants of the favelas. The foot soldiers are often young recruits from the poor neighborhoods. The organization is a loose hierarchy where donos change power whereas the gang remains in position. On the other hand, Mumbai’s underworld has a strong organizational structure under leadership of one or a group of charismatic leaders who wield authority as well as have well placed networks in the police, judiciary and political arena and the foot soldiers are not restricted to a particular region. Most importantly, contrary to Brazilian gangs, Mumbai gangs have little or no acceptance from any part of society.
Brazilian gangs have major revenue streams from drugs and weaponry, whereas the criminal syndicate in Mumbai has vested interests in a lot of activities like prostitution, gambling, hawala, extortion and they have also made recent attempts to invest their money into legal businesses like film and construction to launder their revenues. A very important factor is the consumption of drugs in Brazil and India. Brazil’s narco-consumption outnumbers Indian drug consumption.
President Lula’s initiatives and possible suggestions
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a man is from amongst the masses of Brazil. Born in a poor family, with his father leaving the family early, Lula dropped out of school to work on the streets of São Paulo as a shoe polisher. He later rose through union groups to be the co-founder of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). He is perhaps the best person to understand the plight of the poor favela communities. In his quest to take Brazil to new heights, he understands the importance of the major internal issues of favela housing, violence and rampant drug use.
President Lula initiated the Growth Acceleration Program in 2007 as an initiative to rebuild the slum communities and trigger social change. It aims at reversing government policies of exclusion which have been the agenda for past governments. President Lula announced an initial investment of US$ 4.2 Billion in 2007, and in 2008, Casa Civil Minister Dilma Rousseff announced that US$ 1.3 Billion had already been spent. But the numbers don’t do justice at highlighting the importance of PAC. More important are the social implications of PAC.
The PAC is an umbrella term for infrastructural projects aimed at rebuilding houses, providing sanitation, and transportation to the slum regions. It is an innovative social program where favelados (people who live in the favelas) will be employed as workers for building their own homes, streets and sanitation facilities. This will provide them with employment and social inclusion. However, the Brazilian Court of Accounts (TCU) reported that the government completed only 12% of the projects initiated in 2007.
To fully support the inclusion of favelados into society, and to truly improve their quality of life, long term employment opportunities must be created as opposed to short term opportunities provided by the PAC. This can be achieved by banning companies and employers from discriminating against favelados. Increase in employment will enable faster inclusion in society.
PAC should adopt principles from its other project, the Cooperativa de Habitação dos Agricultores Familiares which assists rural Brazilians to rebuild their homes from locally available sustainable materials and sustainable techniques.
Other suggestions to bring about an overall change in the favelas include tackling the problem of gangs and drugs. The law enforcement agencies such as the Military Police and Civilian Police should come under scrutiny for their actions such as encounters and defensive gunfire resulting in mortalities. Although corruption is very difficult to erode, it can be brought under check by improving wages.
Petty criminals are more often evangelized as hardcore gangsters in the prisons of Brazil because of the inhumane treatment they receive at the hands of the officials. Their anti-establishment feelings become much stronger. As the paper points out, the first favela gangs were born in the prisons of Brazil. The government should ensure that prisons act as correctional facilities meant to facilitate the transitions of criminals into a law abiding society. Use of oppression, and barbarous force as depicted in Carandiru (2003), a movie depicting real life events where 111 inmates were slaughtered at Carandiru prison should be discontinued.
Education and Medical facilities should be provided on a large scale by the government instead of the non-profit groups that provide these today. Children and parents should be attracted by large scale publicity campaigns to schools and education.
The most effective way of tackling the gangs of the favelas is cutting off their financial streams. Their main income source is drugs and the government should be actively working towards in restricting drug movement to and from the country. However this measure is been carried out but is not yielding the required results. This situation calls for a more radical policy from the government. Drug consumption cannot be fully removed from a society and hence alternative ways have to be found out to tackle this problem. Recently an experiment carried out at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, in which crack was replace by marijuana, were quite surprising. 70% of the subjects tested were reported to have switched from the one drug to the other within a period of one to six months. In view of these results, those who carried out this experiment have suggested that this treatment should be adopted in the framework of harm prevention polity. Such policies coupled with the implementation of wide scale construction of drug rehabilitation centers run in the favelas as well as in prisons can drastically reduce narcotic consumption.
The economic boom and recent prosperity for many Brazilians does not change the fact that the country has deeply rooted social problems of racial and gender discrimination and unequal distribution of wealth. Many Brazilians are denied basic civilian rights based on their geographical location in the city. Favelados have been repeatedly denied the rights to legal own the land they have been living for generations.
Until the government takes pro-active steps to bring the favelados back into society, gangs and violence will keep appearing as manifestations of the aspirations of the people denied and choked for over a century.