Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2004

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Inside Rio´s Drug Gangs

Inside Rio´s Drug Gangs
Robert Gay

Between the summer of 1999 and the spring of 2002, Professor of Sociology Robert Gay conducted a series of interviews with a young Brazilian woman, "Lucia," at her home in a shantytown, or favela, in Rio de Janeiro. Gay, whose previous research focused on political movements among the poor and the transition to democracy, first got to know Lucia in 1989 while conducting field research.

Lucia´s involvement with a string of drug dealers and her insider´s knowledge of drug gangs and the violence that has plagued Rio was of particular interest to Gay. He writes, "There are few accounts of what it is like to endure such conditions. Our knowledge of drug gangs is primarily through the grim reports and statistics that appear daily in the newspapers."

Gay has turned these interviews into a book, Lucia: Testimonies of a Drug Dealer´s Woman, which will be published by Temple University Press early next year. The following is an excerpt from the book´s introduction.

by Robert Gay


Since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brazil has experienced a sudden and dramatic increase in the level of violent crime. Between 1980 and 2000, for example, the number of homicides in Brazil has risen steadily from 10,000 to 40,000 per year. The vast majority of these homicides have taken place in and around Brazil´s major cities and metropolitan areas and have cut short the lives of predominantly young, poor, uneducated, male and dark-skinned victims from the literally thousands of low-income neighborhoods, public housing projects and favelas.

Explanations for the increase in violent crime in Brazil run the gamut from the impact of globalization and neo-liberal reforms, to changing attitudes towards work and leisure and the emergence - among the young - of a fetishism for high-priced articles of "style" that confer status and power. Three factors stand out, however. The first is inequality. Since the 1960s, Brazil has become one of the world´s largest industrial economies. And yet, it competes with a handful of much poorer nations for the dubious distinction of being the most unequal place on earth. In terms of per capita income, Brazil is in the same league as countries such as Costa Rica, Malaysia, Bulgaria and Chile. In terms of poverty rates, however, Brazil is much more like Panama, Botswana, Mauritania and Guinea. More significantly, perhaps, the past two decades of almost constant economic turmoil and recession have meant that the abyss that separates the rich and poor in Brazil shows few signs of closing.

The second factor has to do with what are referred to as "authoritarian legacies" of the previous regime. Under military rule, the police in Brazil acted with impunity to hunt down, torture and, in some cases, execute political dissidents. In post-authoritarian Brazil, the police operate in much the same way, but with a different and much larger population in mind. Since the mid-to-late 1970s the police have been engaged in the extermination of what are widely considered marginal and, therefore, expendable elements of Brazilian society. The brutal and cold-blooded murder of 111 inmates in Carandiru prison in São Paulo in 1992, of eight street children outside Candelária Cathedral and of 21 inhabitants of the favela (or shantytown) of Vigário Geral - both in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 - are but more heinous and well-known examples of what is standard police procedure. Protected, until recently, by military tribunals that dealt with complaints of human rights abuse and, since then, by an overburdened and ineffective civil judiciary, police involvement in criminal activities, in general, and the summary execution of civilians, in particular, continues both unchecked and unpunished.

By far the most important factor, however, is drugs. Over the course of the past two decades, Brazil has become a major exporter and, more recently, consumer of cocaine that is cultivated and processed in the bordering countries of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. And in the city of Rio, in particular, vast areas of the city and its hinterland are now controlled not by public authorities but by well-organized and heavily armed drug gangs. These gangs purchase the cocaine from intermediaries, or matutos, who bring it in from neighboring countries and states. The gangs then repackage and sell the cocaine to wealthy clients in surrounding neighborhoods and, increasingly, to users and addicts in their own communities. The struggle for control of the massive profits to be made from the cocaine trade has, since the early 1980s, been the basis for what are increasingly violent confrontations between rival drug gangs and, far more significantly, between drug gangs and the police. Indeed, as Lucia´s testimony clearly shows, it is this wicked brew of savage and increasingly visible inequality, the prospect of easy money, and police corruption and police violence that has transformed, not just a select few neighborhoods, but an entire city into, what is effectively, a war zone.

In Rio, the increase in violence has - almost single-handedly - washed away the foundations of what was an emerging and vibrant civil society. And violence and, more to the point, the fear of violence represents perhaps the greatest threat to democracy today. When I first began my research in Rio, I was acutely aware of the growing presence of drug gangs. At the time, however, their influence was minor compared to that of neighborhood associations and other recently organized civic groups. And to be quite honest, like many of my colleagues, I was too busy imagining civil society to pay them much attention. With each subsequent visit, however, I noticed that the situation had changed. Fifteen years ago, my friends in various favelas talked enthusiastically about organizing and attending meetings and about their newly established democratic rights. Now, all they talk about - in hushed voices and behind closed doors - is their reluctance to participate in public life and their strategies for surviving the undeclared civil war between increasingly violent gangs and the police.


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