Brazil-based blogger Julia Michaels reports on the much-anticipated police take-over of favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone, and an interview with now-captured drug gang boss “Nem.”
Reporting from the area, from both formal and informal media, indicates that the invading force of 700 military, civil, federal and highway police, with 18 armored tanks, met with no resistance as they moved into Rio de Janeiro’s most glaring examples of the inequality in the Brazilian social structure at 4:30 a.m. Sunday. Two hours later, police were turning the tanks around, while specialized units began their searches. Just when the next phase will begin — the installation of police pacification units — is unknown.
The worst problem was oil that traffickers had allegedly spilled on the entrance to Vidigal favela, which didn’t stop the tanks but turned treacherous many workers’ morning post-occupation descents.
One arrest occurred, of an alleged trafficker named Igor.
Civil Police chief Martha Rocha made a plea early this morning on TV Globo, for the favelas’ women to inform police of the whereabouts of weapons, criminals and drugs — using the independent “Disque Denuncia” telephone service. “Don’t stay silent,” she advised, citing the number.
Observers and residents were fearful about the searches, given the military police’s spotty human rights track record during searches carried out in the Alemao and Mare favela complexes, among others. This time, human rights activists will be watching closely and reporting on police work.
Thursday, Rocinha-Vidigal druglord “Nem,” Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, was arrested as he fled in a car trunk, but two other traffickers are said to have taken over his business, which he claims was making close to $60 million equivalent a year. According to him, half of this went to police, his virtual partners. Nem is now in a Bangu prison, set to be transferred out of state soon.
A couple of small favelas in the South Zone are still controlled by traffickers, but today’s news means that this part of the city is pretty much fully “liberated” — i.e. its most important favelas are in the process of becoming part of the formal city of Rio de Janeiro. Key to this process will be increased municipal and state services to these heretofore excluded urban areas.
Many observers and favela residents say that the provision of such services is still lacking in the 18 favelas that already have police pacification units. For Facebook users, here is an intelligent drawing that made the rounds on Friday, illustrating the situation.
Next, the “Today Show” broadcasting live from Rocinha?
Today’s invasion received the most media attention, Brazilian and foreign, of any undertaken so far. O Globo newspaper ran real-time online reporting, just as it does for soccer games. Tweeting from Rocinha was nonstop.
Residents of Rocinha and Vidigal favelas work in homes, businesses, schools, clubs, and shopping centers of Sao Conrado, Leblon, Gavea, Lagoa and Ipanema, among other parts of Rio. These are the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Whether the limelight will also shine on outstanding public safety challenges — militias, police corruption and training, and the hundreds of Rio favelas that still lie beyond the pale of urban services — remains to be seen. This attention will be key to the integration of a city where the poor have been ignored for centuries, as it struggles to provide safety for all residents and future visitors.
Yesterday, Epoca magazine published a Nov.4 interview with Nem, witheld until his arrest. The interview is clearly an attempt to curry favor with government officials and society in general. Nem has much to fear, particularly from the police he now says he used to pay off. Below, a translation.
My Meeting with Nem, by Ruth de Aquino
It was Friday November 4. I got to Two Street at 6 p.m. This is the location of a house in an alley recently purchased by Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, “Nem,” for $68,000 equivalent. A 10-minute car ride separates my house on the “asphalt” from the heart of Rocinha. By way of favela contacts with a church that works with drug addicts and traffickers, and prostitutes, a meeting with Nem had been set up. At 35, he’d been the druglord in the favela for six years. He owned the hill.
I wanted to understand the man behind the myth of the city’s “enemy number one.” Nem is called “president” by those around him. Feared and courted. On Tuesdays, he received community members and went through requests and disputes. Friday was payday. They told me he slept days and worked nights — and that he is very close to his mother, with whom he goes out arm-in-arm, to chat and drink beer. He bought several houses recently and there were rumors he’d turn himself in soon.
As soon as I got there, I heard I’d walked right by him, playing ping-pong on a table in the street. Everyone knew I was a person “from outside”, from the other side of the invisible wall, on the asphalt. Open sewers and a mountain of trash on the corner signaled the abandonment of a street that used to have a police post, now closed. An empty can passes humming by my face — thrown by a girl in shorts passing by on a motorcycle.
I waited three hours, was taken to different places. My intermediaries were nervous, because “heads would roll if I had a button mike on my clothes to record, or a hidden camera.” I got to the point of asking: “Aren’t things a little backward? Shouldn’t I be nervous and afraid?” At 9 p.m., on the back of a motorcycle, without a helmet, I rode up dark and hole-ridden alleyways, skirting buses and hearing the noise of Rocinha, a mixture of funk, loudspeakers and televisions in street bars. I crossed paths with the blonde Danubia, Nem’s current wife, riding an orange motorcycle, long hair down to her waist. I went all the way to the top, to Vila Verde, and got my first surprise.
I didn’t find Nem in a hidden room, surrounded by armed men. The scene couldn’t be more innocent. It was public, well lit and open: Rocinha’s new soccer field, with synthetic grass. Children and adults played. The sky was starry and the view was of the shacks that are home to 70,000 residents. Nem was getting ready to play. He wrapped his right ankle. During this ritual he hardly looked at me. He talked to a pastor about a 22-year-old drug addict: “Did you get him, pastor? You can’t give up. The church can’t give up on anyone’s recovery. Man, he was clean, no drugs, he’d found a job … keep me posted,” said Nem. He put on his socks, then an ankle support, and got up, looking straight at me.
That was the second surprise. Tall, brown-skinned, and muscular, very different from the photo commonly seen in the media, of a skinny guy with a dyed fluff of hair in the front and an uninviting smile, a bit like the Joker. Nem is the father of seven children. “Two adopted me; they call me dad and ask for my blessing [a Brazilian custom, particularly among the lower classes].” The youngest is a baby with Danubia, who set up a beauty salon, according to him “with a bank loan, and making the payments.” Nem is a devoted Flamengo fan. But he wore blue and white, the colors of his team in the favela. Sleeveless Nike shirt, baseball cap, soccer shoes.
“What position do you play, Nem?” I asked.
“Stubborn,” he said, laughing, “My ankle is messed up and no one respects me anymore on the field.”
It was a 30-minute conversation, standing up. Well-mannered, calm, he called me ·ma’am, didn’t use swear words and didn’t comment on the accusations against him. He said he wouldn’t give an interview. “What for? No one is going to believe me, but I’m not the most dangerous bandit in Rio.” He didn’t want a tape recorder or photos. My silence was kept until his arrest. What follows is the reconstitution of part of our conversation.
Police Pacification “Rio needed a project like this. Society is right to no longer accept bandits coming down the hill, armed, to rob on the asphalt and then go back. Here in Rocinha there are no car thefts, no one steals anything, sometimes just a motorcycle or two. I don’t like to see a bandit with a bunch of weapons hanging off him, dressed up like that. The UPP is an excellent project, but it has problems. Imagine the badly-paid police, even the new ones, controlling all the alleys of the favela. How many won’t accept R$100 to ignore a drug trafficking post?”
[State Public Safety Secretary Jose Mariano] Beltrame “One of the most intelligent guys I’ve seen. If there were more guys like him, everything would be better. He says what has to be said. Police pacification is no use if it’s just police occupation. You have to have sports areas, create opportunities. How can Cuba have more medals than we do, in the Olympics? If a poor family’s child ·took the Enem [college entrance exam] with the same chances of a rich family’s child, he wouldn’t get into drug trafficking. He’d go to college.”
Religion “I’m not going to Hell. I always read the Bible, I ask my children every day if they went to school, I try to stop kids from getting into crime, I give people money for food, rent, school, to get out of here. I hold services in my home, I ask pastors to come. But I have no connection to a particular church. My connection is to God. I learned to pray as a child, with my father. But I only started to understand [evangelicals] about seven years ago. I think God has a plan for me. He’s going to open a door.”
Prison “The life of crime is very bad. I and a load of other people want to leave it. What’s good is going to the beach, the movies, going out with your family without being afraid of being followed or killed. I would like to sleep in peace. Take my child to the zoo. I’m afraid of not being enough for my children. Because a father has more authority than a mother. He says no, and it’s no. In Colombia, they took millions of FARC guerrillas out of crime because they gave amnesty and a chance for them to rejoin society. I’m not asking for amnesty. I want to pay my debt to society.”
Drugs “I don’t use drugs, I just drink with friends. I think marijuana will be [decriminalized] in less than 20 years in Brazil. In the United States, it almost is. Can you imagine how much money businesses will make? They’ll swallow up the drug traffic. I don’t deal crack and I don’t allow crack in Rocinha. Because it destroys people, families and the whole community. I know people who ·have used cocaine for 30 years and can function. But with crack, people steal and rob anything they come across.”
Recovery “I send prostitutes and drug addicts to a recovery center in City of God. These kids need family and future, so as not to get into prostitution or get sick with AIDS. For police pacification to work, there has to be social inclusion of people like this. That’s what Beltrame says. And I say to all of mine who are in the traffic: the time is now. If you want to recover go to the church and turn yourself in to pay what you owe and save yourself.”
Idol “My idol is Lula. I love Lula. He fought crime with the most success. Because of the Rocinha PAC [Accelerated Growth Program], 50 of my men left the traffic to work on the construction sites. Do you know how many went back to crime? None. Because they saw that they had work and a future in civil construction.”
Police “I pay a lot every month to the police. But I have a lot more friends who are police than police I pay. They know that I give orders not to shoot police coming into the favela. They are all fathers, they come here because they’re ordered to, should they get a bullet for no good reason?”
Traffic “I know they say I went into the drug traffic because of my daughter. She was 10 months old and had a very rare illness, she needed a catheter, a very expensive thing, and Lulu (the former druglord) lent me the money. But I would rather say that I went into the traffic because I just did. And it doesn’t pay.”
Nem wanted to play soccer. He’d just left the gym where he works out. He didn’t tell me to leave, but I could see my time was up. I walked down. It took a long time for me to get to sleep.