The Numbers Game

Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro

  • Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio by Misha Glenny
    Bodley Head, 352 pp, £18.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 84792 266 3

In Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, we barely noticed the shacks on the sides of Two Brothers Mountain, which would later become the favela of Rocinha – barely noticed them at least from the beachfront neighbourhood of Leblon where I lived. To reach Rocinha, you had to take a road famous for a dramatic hairpin bend on the Gávea racing-car circuit, then one of the most dangerous ever conceived. I had my only glimpses of the favela when my father took me to see my idols, the drivers Juan Mañuel Fangio and Chico Landi, competing on that circuit. The poor, mostly black inhabitants of the favelas didn’t mix with the white upper middle class living near the beach. Domestic servants, mostly favelados, would go to the beach only at weekends after sunset, when the whites had already gone home.

What is a favela? The word refers to a plant native to the state of Bahia, in the north-east of Brazil. There, in the late 19th century, in the region of Canudos, a messianic leader, Antônio Conselheiro, settled a community of landless farmers, freed slaves, workers and indigenous people. The Brazilian government sent thousands of troops to disperse these millenarians who seemed to threaten the new republican regime. After the massacre of some 15,000 people, the decommissioned soldiers returned to Rio, where the government had promised to give them plots of land, a promise that was never kept. Instead they built shacks on a hillside – they named it Mount Favela – where some former African slaves were already living. Since then, any settlement of jerry-built shacks on the hills around Rio has been known as a favela.

The absence of basic state services in the favelas attracted criminal organisations, especially those linked to marijuana trafficking and to the jogo do bicho, a popular illegal lottery or numbers game. Kipling, visiting Rio in the 1920s, wrote of bookies wandering the streets carrying colourful placards. From the 1970s on, the numbers game bosses (known as ‘bankers’) laundered money through the escolas de samba, social organisations based in the favelas that run Rio’s Carnival parades, and for decades the banker-racketeers went on buying the protection of politicians, judges and the police. They built up immense fortunes, ran prostitution rings and had people murdered. (Only in 1993 did they suffer judicial sanctions, when a Rio judge, Denise Frossard, gave 14 of the most notorious racketeers prison sentences.) Cocaine was introduced on a large scale in the 1980s, and the drug dons combined generous assistance to the favelados with recourse to armed violence. By the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, when the criminal gangs enjoyed full impunity, several warring parties competed for control. The only state presence was that of the police, who were largely on the payroll of the cartels and racketeers. The favelas were seen as violent places full of criminals, even though the overwhelming majority of the residents were regular workers. Today, 1.4 million of Rio’s 6.3 million inhabitants live in some 760 favelas.

This is the stage on which Misha Glenny sets his extraordinary book, Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, a biography of Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, known as Nem, a drug don in Rocinha, now serving a 16-year sentence in a maximum security prison. Glenny conducted ten interviews with Nem, lasting a total of 28 hours; he talked to his friends and family, the police, senior politicians and journalists. Glenny uses Nem’s rise through the early 2000s – from newspaper delivery man to drug boss to de facto presidente of Rocinha – to reveal the stages in the transformation of relations between the city’s poor neighbourhoods and the world of white people, who lived in districts the favelados called ‘the asphalt’.

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