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’.

In the 1970s, a road tunnel was built through Two Brothers Mountain to link the fashionable neighbourhoods of the South Zone to new and lavish developments at the Barra da Tijuca, set back from a succession of previously isolated beaches. It also linked Rocinha and other favelas to the rest of Rio. Only in the 1980s, however, did public bus routes begin to bring favelados across the city in large numbers, breaking into the secluded lives of the beachfront neighbourhoods. The buses caused considerable concern among the inhabitants of the South Zone, who said they feared that such uncivilised (read ‘black’) people would destroy their beaches. New dwellings covered the hillsides and, as public transport improved, favelados could more easily get to jobs in the wealthy white areas. They found regular employment as guards, drivers, cooks, mechanics, carpenters, cleaners and maids, as well as jobs in construction, offices and light industry. The work was badly paid and menial, but there were – now and then – opportunities for advancement. The favelados are not ‘marginals’, as whites and the media usually call them: the favela and the asphalt have been completely interdependent and interconnected since the 1970s.

Glenny writes very well about the mindset of the white upper class, as they open the windows of their lavish apartments on the beaches of Leblon and Ipanema and see the shanties of Rocinha spreading up the sides of Two Brothers Mountain. The only way for them to survive that vision of deprivation, he suggests, is by ‘erasing the favelas from their conscious minds, a psychological process that is usually only punctured by the recognition of their own maid or odd-job man (who lives in the favelas by definition) as a sentient being’. At my grandmother’s apartment in Leblon, there were always at least a couple of live-in maids and a cook. I was never told where these people, who were always very gentle with me, lived, or anything about their private lives and families. I never even knew their full names. In several vignettes, Glenny reveals the combination of racism, segregation, stigmatisation and neglect that he correctly identifies as an ‘informal system of apartheid’.

There were certain aspects of the culture and tastes of the favelas, however, that gradually became fashionable for upper-class youth. Increased consumption of marijuana, until the 1970s mostly popular with the poor, and later of cocaine, accompanied the incorporation of Rio’s criminal circuits into globalised crime. With the worldwide boom in cocaine in the 1980s, Brazil became a valuable transit point for drugs on their way to the US and Europe. The big traffickers established laboratories close to the points of sale, both domestic and for export. Criminal factions inside the prisons in Rio and elsewhere began to co-ordinate their operations with organisations outside the walls. The two largest gangs, the Red Command and the First Capital Command, were formed in the prisons, in the early 1970s and the 1990s respectively, and then spread to the streets of Rio and São Paulo. Glenny endorses the common assertion that the Red Command benefited from the teachings of ex-guerrilla cellmates who, in their struggle against the military dictatorship, had hands-on experience in bank robbery and kidnapping. But I have my doubts. It seems unfair to blame the former urban guerrillas for improvements in the gangs’ methods, and implausible to suggest that they were responsible for instilling ‘socialist’ doctrine.

In 1999, when Nem was 23, having had no previous involvement with drugs or violence, his nine-month-old daughter, Eduarda, developed a rare blood disease, Langerhans cell histiocytosis, which Nem describes as ‘having the effect of making Eduarda’s bones crumble’. He left his regular job in the newspaper delivery business and received some severance pay, but it wasn’t enough for Eduarda’s treatment. So he went to Lulu, the drug don of Rocinha, to ask for a loan to pay his debts. It was, he says, a ‘Faustian bargain’. Despite being ‘revolted by the associated violence’, he began to work for Lulu, and two years later he was promoted, taking command of three smoke shops – pop-up stores selling marijuana and cocaine – and about 25 armed men. ‘He was slowly assuming the codes and behaviour of the gangster’s world,’ Glenny writes, a world ‘that he now inhabits professionally.’ In just six years he rose to head the gang’s operations in Rocinha.

It seems to me that Glenny accepts too readily Nem’s story of a Faustian bargain. There is something here that doesn’t quite click. Glenny’s Nem sounds like a Brazilian version of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but I suspect Nem has played down other motives, such as an attraction to money and power. I wouldn’t dispute the noble reasons for his pact with the devil, but as in the legend, there were collateral benefits. Perhaps the secret of Nem’s success was his willingness over the long term to accept his subordination to more senior drug dons in Rocinha. He was able to conceal his ambition in order to allay any fear that he might grab power directly. Nem saw himself ‘as the ever capable consigliere, operating quietly in the background to clear up other people’s messes, doing the accounts and ensuring the smooth running of the business’ – an extremely difficult and risky exercise, exposing him to threats from his peers. His methods favoured caution over haste, cunning over force and, more than anything else, patience. When Lulu’s successor, known as Flycatcher (‘Bem-te-vi’), died in a shootout with the police, Nem seized power.

Nem behaved like an old-style mafia boss, exercising total power within Rocinha, and doing it with a certain nonchalance. There’s a video of him in Rocinha a few months before his arrest: there are no guns on view; he’s wearing Bermuda shorts and flip-flops as he confers with colleagues. Everything swirls around him: women shopping, children with plastic machine guns, and in the middle of it all, Nem is relaxed. He employed between two and three hundred people, from lookouts up. He separated security operations – around 100 or 150 ‘soldiers’, armed or not – from the marketing of drugs. He ruled that nobody under the age of 16 could join the business, a provision that was implemented somewhat patchily.

The three pillars of Nem’s dominance were his reputation in the community, his relationship with the local police and his authority within the organisation. Despite some innovation and an entrepreneurial façade, his regime continued the ‘enlightened dictatorship’ of his predecessors. Never mind his relaxed style: ‘his power depended ultimately on guns and a monopoly of violence,’ as Glenny puts it, and he was completely unaccountable, even if he insists that ‘it wasn’t a dictatorship, because I would always explain my reasoning to ordinary residents.’ Nem also built on the tradition of looking after the welfare of the favelados by providing food, medicine and loans as a way of ensuring good will. He bribed the local police and, up to a point, did their job for them, maintaining order in Rocinha. The police acquiesced thanks to generous payments to each cop. Whenever there was a change in the command of the local battalion, the money paid went up. Their main function was to warn Nem of any sign that interfering outsiders might be heading towards the favela.

If he had everything sewn up, how to explain Nem’s fall? From Glenny’s interviews it’s clear that the reason was not any weakening of his skills, but rather his inability to control events beyond Rocinha. For Nem, ‘the world beyond the slum was a foreign country, and one beginning to look unstable and dangerous.’ Rocinha was still under his command, but the outside world was in turmoil. Rio’s secretary of public security said in 2007 that ‘for fifty years, the state chose to abandon the favelas. The whole world knows that Rio has been a divided city with these islands of criminality. Everyone knows that we have to occupy those islands.’

Between 25 December 2006 and 1 January 2007 a series of horrific co-ordinated attacks by young gunmen took place at twenty different points in Rio. It was a response by the Red Command to the takeover of some of its bastions in the Alemão favela by vigilante groups – made up of former civil and military police officers, firemen and prison officials – who offered an initially welcome alternative to control by the dons. In reaction to the Red Command attacks, the city authorities sent large numbers of police into certain favelas to confiscate arms and drugs, detaining senior gang members and occupying the favelas for a year. At the end of 2008, the city, with the support of the federal government, launched a more comprehensive strategy of ‘pacification’ to wrest control from the gangs. The police stormed the favelas and Police Pacification Units were permanently established to maintain order. As Glenny says, ‘the primary goal of pacification was not to rid the city of the drugs trade, centred in Rio’s favelas, but to halt the violence and reduce the number of weapons in circulation.’ The assault on the favelas was marked by regular (and unconstitutional) stop-and-frisk activity on the part of the police, who searched homes and private property at their discretion, abusing the poor without a legal basis, as documented by the late Brazilian political scientist Maria Helena Moreira Alves and Philip Evanson in Living in the Crossfire: Favela Residents, Drug Dealers and Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro (2011). The strategy had more to do with Brazil’s hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 than with concern for the favelados’ wellbeing.

In Rocinha, meanwhile, Nem could celebrate four years of total control of the drug trade and almost complete authority over a community of 100,000 people. Glenny calls the period ‘Rocinha’s Golden Age’, with lower levels of violence than other favelas, funk balls, a show by the New York rap artist Ja Rule, and even a Gay Pride march, all of which attracted large crowds.

But then, on 21 August 2010, officers on early morning patrol near Rocinha, along São Conrado beach, ran into a group of gang members in cars and on motorcycles, returning from a funk ball at the nearby favela of Vidigal. (Nem had gone home from the party much earlier.) In a street battle, one person was shot dead and two police officers were slightly wounded. Some of the gunmen fled, but about twenty heavily armed men ran into the Intercontinental Hotel, where they took 35 guests and staff hostage. Brandishing their weapons, they took over the reception desk and then retreated to the kitchen. After a few hours, and many frantic telephone calls from Nem, they surrendered peacefully and released their hostages. ‘Nem is beside himself with anger and frustration about the unfolding crisis,’ Glenny writes. ‘It took him only moments to understand how deleterious the impact of an event like this would be on his carefully managed strategy for the favela.’ Along with everyone else in Brazil, I followed the events on live television. One of the consequences was the pacification of the Alemão favela, which broke the unstable but longstanding equilibrium among drug lords, police, politicians and the government.

Nem realised that Rocinha was next, and he started negotiating his surrender with the authorities. A bizarre scheme was arranged with the police through his lawyer, allegedly the honorary consul of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who pretended to have diplomatic immunity. In November 2011, the lawyer’s car was stopped by an unexpected police barricade. The police, not wanting to be caught in a diplomatic incident, called their superiors for instructions. The federal police arrived, confusion followed, and the ubiquitous television cameras transmitted the scene live. Finally the police opened the car boot. There was Nem, dashing as always, wearing a long-sleeved striped shirt, calm, silent, composed, even dignified. The indignity and nervousness came from the police and the agitated reporters.

But why did he step down? Nem is not very clear on this and seems unable or unwilling to reveal the whole story. Nobody denies that the assault on the Intercontinental Hotel was the breaking point. Unable to defend himself, he decided to flee. But his fall can’t be attributed simply to bad luck. The process by which he had consolidated his power was too complex. Would it have been possible to make preparations against the imminent invasion of Rocinha? He must have known what it took to plan and manoeuvre against future disasters. Perhaps he felt he could only rely on defences that he would personally be able to control. Perhaps he never thought he would have to.