Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 09

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A Passage Through Crime

A Passage Through Crime
"Bruno", a former leader of the organized crime faction Comando Vermelho. Bruno´s name is changed for his protection. Photo by Robert Gay.

A former gang leader shows a professor the inner workings of Brazil´s drug trade

by Karen Guzman


They met each day in the morning, the professor catching a bus from his hotel in downtown Rio de Janeiro to the hillside slums a few miles away. The drug dealer — clean now, an ex-convict out of the business — was ready to talk.

The men were not new to each other. Connecticut College Professor of Sociology Robert Gay had known Bruno for eight years. Bruno is an alias, one of several Gay uses in his forthcoming book, Inside the Comando Vermelho: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Trafficker, to protect his subject´s identity. Bruno was not just another gang member, terrorizing Rio´s famously violent and dangerous slums. He is a former leader of the Comando Vermelho, Brazil´s oldest and perhaps most powerful organized crime faction. Sharing the details of his story with an outsider — particularly one writing a book — posed certain risks.

Rio´s slums, or favelas, are a headquarters for organized crime. There are always eyes watching, and retribution can be swift and deadly. Even though Gay and Bruno both felt reasonably secure that no harm would come their way, in his book Gay changes names and locations, as well as the names of the prisons where Bruno did time and the individuals he encountered.

Gay, who joined the College´s faculty in 1988 and is director of the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts, is well acquainted with Rio. A specialist originally in democracy and civil society, he has developed a focus on drug trafficking and organized crime and has spent the past 20 years conducting field research in the favelas. Gay first traveled to Brazil at the age of 12, when his father had a one-year job transfer to the South American country. A new world opened.

“I come from a small village in England, and this was such a different way of life. It opened my eyes to travel, to living abroad, to so many things,” Gay says.

From that point, his interest in Latin America, particularly Brazil, only grew. In 1986 Gay returned to Rio to do his Ph.D. dissertation research on civil society in the favelas. Two books followed: Popular Organization and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: A Tale of Two Favelas and Lucia: Testimonies of a Brazilian Drug Dealer´s Woman. It was through Lucia that Gay met Bruno.

His forthcoming book, Gay says, will break new ground. It will represent the first time an insider from Brazilian organized crime goes public, shedding a light on the workings of Brazil´s infamous drug trade. Lucia and Bruno are a couple, living and raising their two children together. Early on, Bruno began telling Gay his story. “Then he shut down on me,” Gay says. Although intrigued by the material, Gay backed off. But he kept in contact with the family, visiting once or twice a year. And as true friendship took root, Bruno´s position changed.

“One day about two and a half years ago, he just said, ´Let´s do it,´” Gay says. And so in January 2007 they began. Gay made six trips to Rio over the ensuing year, spending a week each trip tape-recording Bruno´s life story. The interviews took place in Bruno´s apartment. Bruno was 41 when they started, out of jail since age 33. Lucia works long days in a bakery in a wealthy neighborhood nearby, so Gay and Bruno had the privacy they needed for the interviews.

Favelas are a home base for criminal gangs, as well as a feeding ground for Rio´s infamously corrupt police force. These slum neighborhoods ringing the city began their decline into violence in the late 1980s, Gay says. “By 1990 I could no longer walk around wherever I wanted to. It´s just become more and more dangerous,” he explains.

Interviewing Bruno, Gay followed a strict protocol. He called Bruno before boarding a bus out to the favela each morning. Bruno always walked down and met Gay at the bus stop. The two shook hands upon meeting. “That was to let anyone watching know I was OK. Bruno was vouching for me,” Gay explains. “Somebody always walked me down, too, and made sure I got on the bus. They kept an eye out for me.”

Gay recorded 25 hours of interviews in which Bruno traces his life from growing up on a farm to a stint in the Brazilian navy to prison, gang life and drug trafficking. “Early on he´s quite matter-of-fact,” Gay says. “But the more you get into it, the more he talks about all the pain and suffering.”

It´s a story that lays bare the interwoven worlds of Brazil´s drug gangs, prison system and police force, divulging along the way details about the inner workings of international drug trafficking and the terrible toll it takes on the lives it touches. Reliving the memories wasn´t easy for Bruno. “It was actually very cathartic for him,” Gay says. “He was in tears by the end.” Calling him the “perfect observer,” Gay adds that Bruno offered keen insight into favela life and crime.

Forrest Novy, professor and director of the Inter-American Institute for Youth Justice at the University of Texas at Austin, says capturing Bruno´s perspective and insight are the keys to relaying his world. “To best understand a social phenomena (from an outsider´s point of view), in this case the illegal drug trade in Rio, it´s so important to seek out persons most intimately involved and/or knowledgeable about the phenomena. It sounds like Professor Gay has done just this,” Novy says.

Translating and writing Bruno´s story — remaining true to the voice and spirit of the teller — are Gay´s challenges. “My Portuguese has improved dramatically,” he says. And so has his friendship with Bruno. “Gradually we came to really like each other and respect each other,” Gay says. In the book, Bruno emerges as an immensely likeable, and even sympathetic, character, despite his criminal past.

“He´s a real human being,” Gay says. “He´s a complex character. He´s done some things he regrets. Towards the end, he says he hopes he´s done enough good things to make up for them.”


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