Traffic networks in Rio


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THERE has been a revolution in consumption patterns in Brazilian society: there are more consumer goods and shopping centres. Cultural values have also changed: more individualistic and modern values such as always seeking the best for yourself and making easy money have become widespread in Brazilian society since the 1970s.

Drug traffic is part of this new social, economic and political environment. It is not only individualistic and entrepreneurial but the best organised of all underground and illegal activities. It is part of both the formal and the informal economy; though it employs only a few it allows many to earn money informally as street sellers. Even at a shantytown, the language employed is one of business: ‘profits’, ‘accountancy books’, ‘inputs and outputs’, ‘bookkeepers’, ‘owner’, ‘manager’.

The drug traffic gang is similar to the mafia, but unlike the Italian mafia it is not based on personal dependence and loyalty and even less on family ties. It is not a family business, has no big chief, and works in networks, although not always horizontally. There is a great inequality inside it in terms of power relations and division of profits and ‘gains’. In other words, it is vertical: the trafficker or owner, the managers and the street sellers. This verticality is expressed symbolically in terms of power from the head: weak head X strong man; guided by remote control X chief commander; induced by others X takes own decisions.

The qualities listed on the left are reflective of the employed (book-keepers, or fixed sellers) and many ‘little aeroplanes’ (go-between sellers), who may get a variable salary or a small percentage on the sales or a small part of the drug they get to sell elsewhere. Even when the payments are monetary, they may get back to the trafficker for most of them are heavy users. Those on the right capture the image of the owner (the trafficker) and his managers (usually three), the only ones who profit in the business and may make a lot of money. Some of them have established legal business, like buying trucks, taxis, bars, bakery stores, gas stations and the like.

But most lose their money quickly in paying corrupt policemen and lawyers, and in meeting their own lavish consumption. Like in the mafia, here too there is a cult of violence, of conspicuous consumption and exploitation of the weak. When they are short of money or want to increase the business or their share in it, they organise robberies, car thefts and muggings. Any disagreement and conflict is invariably resolved by violence, usually by gunfire, since they cannot appeal to the system of justice.

Selling activities involve many people who have always worked in the streets: hookers, doormen, taxi drivers, bar tenders, and the street vendors who are the main figures of the informal market. In the districts studied, they combine their legal selling activities inside the commercial centres with theft, robbery and traffic. Nevertheless, they have to perform these activities only with the permission of the nearest trafficker. If not, they will be killed. This is especially clear in Copacabana and Tijuca districts where selling in the ‘pista’ or asphalt has been more frequent than in Madureira.

Some favelas are considered safer than others from the point of view of the freedom for trading drugs. Mangueira, near the district of Tijuca, is one of the safest, (policemen seldom go there, although it is one of the main drug distribution centres) and is controlled by a strongly armed mob. The main street, Buraco Quente has a number of bars and small shops, where dealers can negotiate calmly. Another near the main shopping centre is Borel.



Drug traffic has also created divisions between shanty towns so close to each other that their internal streets and constructions merge. Although neighbours still recognise the areas by their initial names, they are now officially considered as one complex. In one of these complexes, after the death of the leader who unified several favelas, there was a state of war between the gangs linked to different traffickers; neighbours were prohibited from trespassing the artificial borders between them. Many adolescents have been killed just because they passed from one area to the other.

Traffickers have also succeeded in penetrating several voluntary and public organizations, for example, the dustmen who work for the company that clear the garbage – Comlurb. Visits to the favelas revealed that there were many people linked with the drug dealers who were on the payroll of Comlurb. Drivers and watchmen of the company also belong to the drug gang. Even those who are not part of the gangs are compelled to carry drugs or guns in the Comlurb trucks from one point in the city to another. Drivers of ambulances on service with public hospitals have been forced to do the same. Those who do not comply are killed.



Amongst some of the youngsters who hang about the streets of the favelas and the districts, traffickers and their gangs are highly valued. Their symbols are – TCK trade marks for the Terceiro Comando or Nike for Comando Vermelho, the two biggest networks of this crime business. Adolescents say they belong to one or the other as if they were supporters of soccer teams. They also absorb the warrior ethos with all its consequences by claiming that they have enemies everywhere and that they need guns. They loathe policemen and suffer from a fear of being considered delators. Of course this increases the risk of being killed and is an enormous shame too, as one loses the respect of ones mates.

The terms employed by some of those youngsters and their neighbours to denote criminal actions captures the linguistic ambivalence well. ‘Vice’, ‘delay’, ‘stop’ or ‘parade’, ‘devil condominium’ are words that express the opposite of morally valued work. They are used to explain why someone is stuck or trapped in a vengeance circle or blood feuds or police persecution. ‘Revolt’ is used to denote those who will not accept low wages and hard work, based on a simple conception of social justice and male pride that defies economic exploitation.

In general working class people have a moral view of crime, that is to say, crime for them is not strictly a juridical matter. Nevertheless, they uphold an idea of personal choice, that is, a non-religious approach to crime. In a certain way, these representations exhibit a tension similar to the one found in Greek tragedy, that is an insurmountable conflict between the idea of fate or destiny versus an individualistic, juridical conception of responsibilities.



Although, among the poor Brazilian workers, moral ties are not expressed only in terms of family loyalties as in classical Greek society, there is also a strong a priori belief in personal fate that leads determined people inevitably into the path of criminality. Simultaneously, they uphold the idea of a free individual who chooses his own way, as in the modern liberal doctrine. While both ideas question Marxist theories of the predominance of social factors, they also repeat a common sense sociological view of crime, explained in strict economic and social terms. While this vulgar Marxist idea dominates the discourses directed to the outside public, the former is addressed mainly to an inside audience.

Bandits themselves share the moral view of crime, distinct from the Brazilian Penal Code that sometimes does not follow the same ranking and evaluation of the danger of crimes endorsed by the poor. For the workers as well as for the bandits, the most odious crime is rape; in the Brazilian Penal Code this deserves only a small prison sentence. Next is murder, especially if the victim is ‘innocent’. But atrocities committed against old people, children and pregnant women are the focus of severe condemnation.

Nevertheless, there is a clear separation between crimes committed out of a strong emotional reaction and those based on a cost-benefit calculus. The former happens at ‘the heat of the moment’, since ‘a man must always strike back’. This applies equally to small provocations that challenge their masculine pride or to serious infidelities and treason that bring shame and peril to their families and neighbourhoods. The latter imply some kind of computation of gains and losses as well as mere habit or what they call ‘vice’. Thus, if the first type of crime is linked to the virile ethos, of which bandits are the main holders but not the only ones, the second must be understood within the intricate connection it has with criminal justice.



As institutions, the police and the judiciary, especially the former, are invariably painted in negative colours. When someone is assessed positively, it is invariably by a policeman they used to know or a judge who has passed a just decision. Prison and police precincts are equated to ‘factories of bandits’. The justice system as a whole is seen as ‘propelled by money’. Policemen have the power of initiating an inquiry by registering the ‘flagrant imprisonment document’ or any other proof necessary to a judicial process. They also engage in the practice, disconnected from the existing institutional norms and the constitutional rights of Brazilian citizens, of torturing prisoners, mainly poor and black people, in order to extract confessions about their supposed criminal acts. Policemen have thus acquired great power that makes them all the more prone to corruption.

Impunity is another effect of their frail professional ethos and precarious technical formation as investigators. Many petty criminals and bandits never get caught, a stimulus to repeat delinquent acts. And since money may guarantee immunity, either because a policeman will not register the act and thus start an inquiry, or because well paid lawyers know how to derail judicial processes, joining drug traffic gangs holds a lot of attraction for youngsters.



Equally, the whims and wishes of the traffickers may be decisive for the outcome of a youngster’s career. Researchers heard the case of a 20 year old who was arrested because the trafficker did not like him. He was a go-between for the owner of a bar situated at the fringe of a shantytown, who, in turn, worked as one of the managers for the local and powerful trafficker. He was asked to carry a great quantity of drugs to another far-away shantytown (Mangueira). It was a set up. The trafficker had warned the police and the young man was caught, arrested and imprisoned. He had no money to pay the lawyer nor did the trafficker help him, as is usual for the vapours (drug sellers who are there, but hide away from time to time) and managers. He was sentenced to prison.

Yet, in interviews, the youngsters claim that the ‘criminal crews’ provided more security for their members since they assure juridical assistance that increases the chance of not being sentenced, the higher the youngster is in the organised crime hierarchy. Since money can buy defence, and guns offer the protection that draws upon fear, it is rational to engage in crime in order to have money, guns, respect, as well as the protection of the gang. Actually, their preference for armed robbery is explained by the fact that they can silence possible witnesses by terror, inflict fear on accomplices and offer the gun as a ‘treat’ to the policemen. These multiple ways of escaping arrest make condemnation more difficult.

In real life this calculation may prove ineffective in so far as it does not eliminate the likelihood of a poor or less important bandits being beaten up, tortured or asked for sum of money more than they can provide. They can be divested of the guns and their share of booty and may be taken into jail if policemen prefer to show performance or to increase their rates in the corruption game. The police may accuse them of crimes they did not commit merely to demonstrate to their superiors that certain crimes were solved quickly. There are work pressures and orientation within the institution besides the secular practices of violence and corruption. At least two cases of ‘revolt’, that is, the decision to take up guns and follow criminal careers, were due to such unbearable experiences at the hands of policemen. In general, their descriptions invoke the role of the police as an important factor that pushes them into crime and helps them measure whether crime is worthwhile or not.



The situation would be even more serious were it not for the fact that criminal activities have their own dynamics that may restrain their actions. Power relationships and the division of labour, sometimes very exploitative, are a case in point. The lion’s share belongs to the ‘owner’ of the ‘boca de fumo’ (selling place), also called ‘the trafficker’. He gets all the profit, whereas his ‘manager’ and ‘vapor’ only get a percentage on the sales.

Thus, if someone wants to become rich quickly, individual initiative is the most suitable line of action. But it may result in the loss of the gang’s protection which in turn may lead to police persecution outside the area the gang controls. It also could hinder the objective of climbing the gang’s hierarchy quickly in order to gain more from the drug business. Independent and petty criminals are the ones most targeted by policemen since they do not pay the regular bribe that allows business to take place without any disturbance. Nevertheless, they also make their decisions about ‘going into the movement’ on the assumption that policemen have shared ideas about who is a criminal, and may not differentiate between delinquents and workers since they all look the same.



While workers and bandits have a moral view of crime that relates it to a necessary punishment, the dynamics of interactions transform this view into a cynical, instrumental and manipulative version of the law on the part of those who have been sued. Luck, manipulation of judicial actors and the due process of law, occasional pressures and bribes before, during and after the judicial process, regular corruption of policemen, intimidation of witnesses, terror exerted on neighbours, and a lucrative business offer incentives and justifications for the crimes committed.

Yet, there are deterrents to criminal action not from the repressive action of policemen, which is understood as manipulated, but from the poor neighbours’ own organisations and values. First, family obligations and compromises may bring a feeling of ‘vergonha’ (shame). Some youths and adults shudder at the possibility that their parents, specially their mothers, or their children and other relatives may know about their crimes and feel ashamed. Vergonha is a moral issue, although it is not associated with the classical liberal notions of shame and honour that are linked to the purity of women. In this case it is connected to a loss of dignity and family pride.

In some of the more traditional localities, such as Serrinha in Madureira, a clear separation between drug dealers and the neighbours could be observed. In those localities, people suggest that they impose a distance from traffickers with phrases such as ‘they respect us’, ‘we do not have anything to do with them.’ Those are the ones who do not want to make agreements with traffickers or let them intimidate local inhabitants who do not allow them to sell drugs at their gates or to show guns to small children. But this is not the case with all neighbours or with all communities. At Serrinha only the old inhabitants, who follow Afro-Brazilian religions and support the old School of Samba tend to maintain this attitude, whereas newcomers, who belong to Christian sects and prefer funk music, tend to make agreements with the dealers. They consider themselves more modern.



Second, the brutal rules that dictate relations within the criminal gang or inside the more inclusive mundo do crime (world of crime), may deter some of the youngsters from joining, even when they strongly feel the attraction of carrying a gun, being part of the mob and feared. Others choose to quit, even if this is a dangerous operation. Their success depends on several circumstances, such as being able to move to another district, city or state as a means of disentangling from the former partners.

The only ones who never talk about quitting are those who get richer from the illegal business: the traffickers and their managers. But there are stories about them as well that tell of treason from associates, wives and lawyers, of persecution from policemen who get envious of their riches and of losses provoked by their own vices and lavish consumption that may take them out of business or simply lead to decay (becoming a ‘caido’).