The tightly packed homes at the very top of Rocinha frame Rio's famous statue Cristo Redentor in the background.
Rebecca Bachman

The drug trade is a touchy subject; this is a perilous report.

If you’re here for the visuals, I’m sorry. I can’t give you any photos or names of people in this story. I wouldn’t want to end up like many a departed Rio photographer who has published photos of criminal factions, or like many a Rio journalist who has shared more information than their subject would have liked.

There is a real risk in putting anything about a criminal faction into the media, no matter how neutral – even positive – the approach. But to describe Rocinha without trying to describe the drug trafficking system that holds Rocinha together would be absurd. Here I share all that is common knowledge within a community that is shaped to a great degree, structurally and culturally, by its drug-trafficking foundations.

A People’s History of Crime in Rocinha

It all started in 1984. Officially that is. This is the year that the organized drug trade first established itself in the neighborhood of Rocinha. But a little more historical context brings it into better focus.

It made sense that the drug trade would take hold in favelas in Rio. Rio’s favelas basically sprung up on the faces of Rio’s many hills and mountains over the years, as the city swelled with immigrants from all over Brazil, especially from poorer regions in the north. The flat asfalto areas were already settled and expensive, so newcomers made their homes in the beautiful hills.

The government neglected these newly settled areas from the start: The makeshift communities enjoyed a lack of police, housing guidelines, and rules. But along with this lack of governmental interference came poorly planned living arrangements and crime with no consequences. The approximately one-third of Rio de Janeiro’s population that currently lives in the hilly neighborhoods appeared condemned from the start to social immobility.

Before 1984, according to long-time community members, Rocinha was perilous turf. “There was lots of rape, robbery, and bad things… It would not have been safe for you to be here.” Naturally, the anarchic void was eventually filled. Demand for security and lucrative local business, hand-in-glove with government neglect of these communities, gave rise to the drug-trade foundation that we see today.

Tales of the old Rocinha seem so foreign to me that I’m not sure if we’re talking about my current hometown anymore. It has indeed changed drastically. “The traficantes brought a sense of order to the community,” residents explain. Specifically, A Lei da Fevala (the law of the favela) discourages crime in ways that police simply cannot. Bandidos have developed an impressively effective, old-fashioned, even medieval-esque law enforcement system in the community. They take a sort of “eye for an eye” approach to crime – the consequences for stealing might be losing a hand. Infidelity, cheating, lying, general disrespect, domestic violence, rape, and sharing of classified information all warrant grave, brutal physical punishment. Any private issue between community members can also be brought to the bandidos for sorting out. It’s no wonder it’s safe to leave shops unattended and products out in the open throughout the community.

I feel safer in Rocinha than in rich neighborhoods of the asfalto. The streets are always full of activity, robbery within the community is virtually unheard of, and I can’t imagine having an unwelcome hand laid on me. The only time you’ll find community members stealing is outside of the favela.

Details of the Drug Trade

Approximately 800 armed bandidos comprise the gang. They take in about eight to ten million reals a month. (4.6 million to 5.8 million U.S. dollars). Much of this money is recycled to buy more drugs and weapons. The money is also put to use paying bandidos, of course, throwing baile funk parties, sponsoring community projects, and helping out people deemed worthy. The gang is heavily armed: AK-47s, .762s, AR-15s, Glocks, and grenades are slung over shoulders or laid across laps, ready for use, at all times. They are strictly for defense against police and rival gangs. They’re not a threat to the community; they’re more like part of the scenery. I pass by a good four armed bandidos every morning just on my way from my house to the main road. And I might pass a good 30 on my way down a main street.

Drugs are sold at bocas de fuma, which literally translates to “mouths of smoke.” These are drug-vending stations. A table, the product (either marijuana or cocaine,) vapors (young vendors), and Soldados (soldiers, or heavily armed men who stand offering security) comprise a boca de fuma. They are dispersed throughout the community in easy-to-find public spots. But if you don’t know what you’re looking for (or are accustomed to turning your head at the sight of AK-47s) then they’re easy to miss. The commotion of motorcycles, walkers, cars, bikes, shoppers, vendors, wanderers, rambunctious children, and all types of people going to and from everywhere all the time offers plenty of distraction. Some details naturally go unperceived.

One boca – the one closest to the community’s main entrance and therefore most easily accessible for non-community members – sits on the other side of the wall of windows of one of my favorite restaurants. At a first glance, the bocas might seem the simple stands of small business. But the hidden hierarchy behind these public stations is complex. Let me start at the top.

The dono sits at the top of a drug trafficking hierarchy. He is the drug lord. Alongside him is his fiel (faith), essentially his right-hand man. According to community sources, the fiel, who is constantly heavily armed, is the only person who knows where the dono is at all times. If any member of the gang wants to talk to the dono, he’s got to speak to his fiel first. Under the dono is his gerente geral (general manager), who organizes and oversees the five streams of the hierarchy that divide under him: marijuana, cocaine, Soldados, endoladores, and olheiros/fogueteiros. The marijuana and cocaine streams are both headed by their own gerents (managers), who direct all bocas that deal in their respective drug. Each boca, in turn, has its own gerente de boca, who is in charge of the young vending vapors.

Independent of the marijuana and cocaine streams are Soldados, or soldiers. The gerente dos Soldados is in charge, distributing his men at bocas de fuma to work security. And then we have the endoladores, or packagers, who weigh and pack up drugs for vending in the bocas. The fifth branch of the hierarchy is made up of olheiros and fogueteiros. The former are young lookout scouts. They, along with fogueteiros, are responsible for signaling that rival traffickers or police are coming. The olheiros are usually kids with radios, but I’ve also heard that the hundreds of kites flown by kids from rooftops might be connected with olheiro duties; the signal would be collecting the kites. The latter lights off communicative fireworks.

The reason community members get into the drug trade is complex. They start young. Kids who want to rise up in the hierarchy begin as scouts as soon as they can. Bandidos have a cool, strong, indestructible sort of reputation. According to local sources, each olheiro makes about R$800 ($464) a month. Some vapors receive a commission for the amount of drugs they sell. Soldados earn about R$1,300 ($754) a month. Gerentes (managers) of marijuana or cocaine bocas, depending on how many people they have selling under them, make up to R$3,000 ($1740) a month. That’s a substantial income for a favela resident.

Furthermore, in a community where education is neglected and unlikely to pay off in the end anyway (higher education is expensive and limited; people with favela addresses suffer a bias in the work force, etc.) it’s easy to imagine why taking the bandido route sounds most promising.

When the Going Gets Dangerous

Seeing bandidos on the street in Rocinha is comparable to seeing police on the street in neighborhoods of the asfalto. It’s safe for nearly everybody. Hardworking community members, tourists, drug-seeking outsiders, volunteer workers, construction workers, old folk, children, and bandidos alike share the streets of Rocinha constantly and securely. The only unwelcome people are bandidos’ enemies: bandidos from other factions and police. As long as these two groups steer clear of the favela, peace endures.

The current problem is this: Rio is under a lot of international pressure. The city enjoys a brightening global spotlight with regard to virtually everything (tourism, economics including its oil reserves, politics, social phenomenon, the coming World Cup and Olympic Games, etc.). The Brazilian government has a major goal to try and wipe out the elaborate drug-trade foundation of the favelas and resulting violence between rival factions and police. The government sees the system as a major obstacle and threat to Rio’s (and all of Brazil’s) advancements.

Rocinha is the biggest favela, with one of the most lucrative, elaborate drug-trade systems in the country. To wipe out this foundation from the bottom would be quite a feat for the military police, and everybody knows that both teams are terrified. They plan on entering the favela with rumored thousands of military police in the next couple of years with big plans to alter the community. It will be war.

Both sides are heavily armed. Both sides have incredible financial backing. And while some smaller favelas have, recently, voluntarily agreed to pacification processes and police control, chances are exceedingly slim that any such negotiation will take place between warring sides in Rocinha.

The lucky fact that I will most likely not be living here for this war is entirely unfair. The some half a million residents of Rocinha will see their normally peaceful life-long home turn into a war zone. Hundreds and hundreds of bandidos—community members themselves—with lifelong friends, acquaintances, and family members will disappear from Rocinha. The situation is glaringly ugly and incredibly sad.


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