One of Brazil’s largest favelas has been under siege for more than a week as two rival crime groups battle for territorial control, illustrating shifting criminal dynamics in the city and raising questions about whether or not security forces will be able to restore order.
On September 17, gunfire erupted in Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha favela — the city’s largest — as rival criminal groups battled for control of drug trafficking activities, according to local news outlets. The violence has continued in subsequent days.
Dozens of alleged gang members have reportedly descended on Rocinha at the behest of Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, alias “Nem,” who led the Amigos dos Amigos gang in Rocinha before he was arrested in 2011. Nem has reportedly maintained control over drug trafficking operations in Rocinha from federal prison since his arrest.
The impetus for the recent violence has been linked to a feud between Nem and his former bodyguard Rogério Avelino da Silva, alias “Rogério 157.” Rogério 157 has reportedly broken from the ranks of Nem’s Amigos dos Amigos gang and joined forces with the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) in an apparent attempt to assert greater control over the local drug trade.
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The ongoing battle — which according to O Globo has featured grenades, hours-long gun battles and a bus being set on fire — has severely impacted normal life for Rocinha’s residents. The confrontation has caused major road closures, prevented thousands of students from attending school and caused business and health center closures.
Brazil Defense Minister Raul Jungmann announced September 22 that 950 soldiers would be deployed to Rocinha until the “situation is stabilized for the safety of the population.”
InSight Crime Analysis
The sheer scale of the ongoing turf war in Rocinha and the striking displays of violence suggest that the city’s criminal underworld is in significant turmoil. Whether or not security forces will be able to curtail, and ultimately end, the conflict remains to be seen.
Desmond Arias, an associate professor at George Mason University, told InSight Crime that the underlying issue is the “relationship among the drug dealers,” who he says have a “tendency to fight things out until it’s done.”
“This is a classic Rio gangster battle,” Arias told InSight Crime. “Why would [Rogério 157] want to pay Nem to control Rocinha when he’s on the streets? They are risking their lives, and at a certain point, some people think there’s an upside to taking the risk of shrugging off orders.”
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Felipe Medeiros, an analyst at the consulting firm S-RM, told InSight Crime that the stakes for crime groups in Rocinha are “very high.”
“It is possibly the most profitable favela in Rio in terms of drug sales revenue,” he said.
According to Arias, the conflict is likely to continue until somebody or some faction prevails and “consolidates power to work things out and calm things down.”
At the same time, it’s unlikely that the recent deployment of nearly 1,000 soldiers will help achieve this goal. Rio de Janeiro’s heavily militarized security strategies have repeatedly proven ineffective, and recent efforts to improve security have been plagued by underfunding in part due to the city’s financial crisis.
Júlio Altieri Monteiro from the security consultancy firm Amarante warned that due to the “bad shape” of Rio’s public security forces, among other factors, it is possible that Rocinha may “not return to the state of stability seen in the last five years.”