Brazil: Rio’s War of the Drug Lords

     Brazil: Rio's War of the Drug Lords

    In anticipation of
    war for the favela’s drug trade, Rocinha’s
    drug-traffickers are currently recruiting soldiers. They have asked
    owners of vehicles with tinted windows to remove them, so they
    can monitor who enters and leaves the favela. They have also
    recommended that residents keep off the street after 10 pm.
    by: Gabe
    Ponce de León

    Last week, Brazil rejoiced in the four Oscar nominations received by City
    of God, Fernando Mierelles’ gruesome depiction of gang wars in the favela—a
    shanty-town, often occupying a hillside—bearing the name of the film’s
    title. Meanwhile, in Rio de Janeiro a real-life drama, of a magnitude far
    greater, appears inevitable in Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela.

    Rocinha, owing to its
    singular immensity, is often referred to as the "the city within the
    city." It spreads out along western slopes of the famous Two Brothers
    Mountain, on the northeastern fringe of the upscale São Conrado neighborhood.
    Like Corcovado or Sugar Loaf, Rocinha’s colossal sprawl is a highly-recognizable
    feature of Rio de Janeiro’s landscape.

    In recent years, the estimated
    250,000 inhabitants of Brazil’s largest favela have lived in a stable
    peace, under the benevolent iron fist of the drug lord Luciano Barbosa da
    Silva, known by his moniker, Lulu. Now a vanquished drug lord, intent on returning
    to his former glory, is threatening the calm.

    It all began when Eduíno
    Eustáquio de Araújo Filho, known as Dudu, who commanded Rocinha
    in the mid-1990s, escaped from prison, by the front entrance, on January 17.
    Soon afterward, leaders from the various favelas dominated by the criminal
    organization, Comando Vermelho, or Red Phalanx, congregated and called
    for an invasion of Rocinha to be spearheaded by Dudu, after Lulu refused to
    relinquish control. At stake is Rocinha’s lucrative drug trade, whose worth
    police estimate at 10 million reals per week.

    The police believe that
    Lulu, who is 23 years-old, fell out of favor with the other Comando Vermelho
    leaders following the arrest of Jorge Alexandre Candido Maia, an associate
    of Brazil’s most notorious drug-trafficker, Luiz Fernando da Costa, known
    as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or Freddie Seaside. It is thought that Lulu, fearing
    betrayal, facilitated his arrest.

    Dudu is loathed in Rocinha
    and residents believe it would be difficult for him to reclaim his old turf.
    The police captured Dudu, 24 years-old, with the assistance of members of
    the community in 1997.

    "Dudu is an animal
    and people here are terrified of him" one student said. "Everybody
    heard stories about him raping girls and such. There was one story about him
    burning alive a seven year-old boy for stealing. He would screw over anybody,
    it didn’t matter if you’re a good person or not."

    Dudu could launch an invasion
    of Rocinha from the Vidigal favela, which occupies the other side of
    the mountain. Several years back, would-be invaders from Vidigal were repelled
    during a bloody, hour-long battle. A war in Rocinha could entail vans of armed
    gangsters traveling along some of the city’s vital highways to attack the

    Also looming is the specter
    of disruption on the major highway that runs by Rocinha, connecting the upscale,
    mostly residential Barra da Tijuca to the South Zone and downtown of the city.

    Police Role

    The police are under pressure
    to act assertively to prevent what would be a highly explosive confrontation
    at the heart of the city. In Rocinha, the sound of firecrackers exploding—a
    warning signal of police encroachment—gunshots, and helicopters hovering
    overhead are now commonplace.

    On February 8, a rare
    nighttime offensive left three innocent people dead or seriously wounded.
    Bullet holes in walls and shattered windows were ubiquitous in Rocinha’s lower
    regions where the bulk of the fighting took place.

    "I was coming home
    from work at [a hotel] in Copacabana and I had to wait, with a lot of other
    people, for over an hour [outside Rocinha] until around midnight when the
    battle ended and I could return home safely" recalled one woman. "Rocinha
    has not been this dangerous in a very long time."

    "That shootout was
    the worst I can remember" said a 35 year-old shopkeeper who has lived
    his entire life in Rocinha. "I have seen some bad things around here,
    but never such an intensity of gunfire. The police don’t accomplish anything
    and they put innocent people in danger by shooting all over the place. They
    only come in to tell the public that they are doing something. The reason
    the drug-traffickers run things here is because the police left. If they want
    to do something productive, they should come back and stay for 24 hours a

    Most residents are deeply
    skeptical of police actions and on February 9 over 200 residents streamed
    into one of the favelas main streets to plead for peace, and protest
    against innocent deaths that result from police incursions.

    In anticipation of war
    for the favela’s drug trade, Rocinha’s drug-traffickers are currently
    recruiting soldiers in the community. They have asked owners of vehicles with
    tinted windows to remove them, so they can monitor who enters and leaves the
    favela. They have also recommended that residents keep off the street
    after 10 PM until the situation is resolved.

    Despite the climate of
    tension in the favela, for the most part, Rocinha’s inured residents
    go about their normal activities.

    "For a long time
    it had been very calm here in Rocinha and we have made a lot of progress,
    especially economically" said a 22 year-old man. "Now people are
    very concerned, but we go on with our lives. You try to avoid certain streets,
    like the ones where drugs are sold, because that is where shootouts are most
    likely to occur. But people here are tough. There might be a shootout on one
    street, and a couple streets away, business as usual."

    Gabe Ponce de León is an American, but has been involved in the community
    in Rocinha for several years and has a photography studio there. Comments
    are welcome at

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