Brazil’s favelas are often a world unto themselves, abandoned by the state and ruled over by gangs who mix brutality with a sharp-eyed appreciation of how to win popularity by guaranteeing security - and hosting drug-fuelled parties.
The Red Commando
C ocaína," the bony teenager calls out, standing on a dirt street behind a table that displays baggies of white powder with price tags. Besides the cocaine are packets of compressed marijuana and rocks of crack. A steady stream of customers pay for the goodies with crumpled reais bills. There are bags for four dollars, eight dollars, sixteen dollars; all budgets and tastes catered to here.
A dozen yards away, two guys drive up on a motorcycle. The one on the back has an AR-15 assault rifle with a grenade launcher strapped to his shoulder. He makes no effort to hide the weapon. This is their territory. Police only come into this favela in heavily armed convoys, which normally gives enough time for the dealers to run - or shoot at them.
I've seen cocaine being sold from British pubs to New York corners to Mexican red-light districts. But I've never seen it flogged quite as openly as here, a favela known as Antares on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's glamorous and bloody second city. In the favela, they call these bustling drug points bocas, or "mouths." It's a curious name. I wonder if it refers to the mouth that feeds drug users' needs - or the mouth that feeds the favela with money.
There are several other bocas around the favela, and dealers even offer their wares through a fence onto a platform of a train station; middleclass customers can arrive by rail and buy cocaine without venturing into the favela and rubbing shoulders with the poor and dangerous.
As I hover round the boca table, a group of excited teenagers shout out prices and lift up bags of herbs and powder. I explain that I'm a journalist from England, and an older guy who is running the drug shop introduces himself as Lucas. He's a gregarious twenty-eight-year-old wearing sports clothes and eighties-style bling. I find Rio's residents - known as cariocas - to be among the most friendly and charismatic people in the world, and the drug dealers are no exception.
It's just before the 2014 World Cup, so I talk about soccer, the international language that can help you pass the time with anyone from barbers to taxi drivers... to coke dealers. Lucas lights up at soccer talk and runs off to get his cell phone. He shows me his phone's wallpaper, a photo in which he has his arm round one of the players on the Brazilian national team. I don't want to embarrass the soccer star by naming him, but I'll say that he's got an astounding right foot and played in a European Champions League final.
"This is my friend." Lucas flashes with pride. "He grew up close to here."
This first time I go into Antares, it's a sweltering Tuesday afternoon. I'm with an American journalist named Joe Carter who has spent a decade in Brazil working intensively in these slums and has inevitably had to deal with drug dealers like these. Joe is showing me what he describes as one of the most hard-core, and surreal, favelas. Antares is a long way out, an hour by car from Copacabana Beach and its G-stringed bikinis. Unlike many favelas that climb the side of Rio's mountains, it's on flat arid land beside train tracks. Poverty colors all that is here: the unpaved streets, the birds pecking at piles of garbage, the tin roofs, the children kicking up dirt as they run, the weary faces of the old.
Antares is the territory of Rio's oldest and biggest drug gang, called the Comando Vermelho, or Red Commando. The commando's presence is obvious as soon as we drive down the entrance road. Groups of young men guard all the paths in and out, talking into radios. Again, they make no effort to hide themselves, sitting lazily in the sun with their guns and walkie-talkies. The control of the commando - and absence of the state - is naked.
Red Commando (Comando Vermelho) is arguably Brazil’s oldest active criminal gang. Formed during the 1970s in a Rio de Janeiro prison as a self-protection group for prisoners, it moved into low-level crimes from muggings to bank robbery. In the 1980s, the group became involved in the cocaine trade, often working with Colombian drug cartels, particularly rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). One of its leaders, Luiz Fernando da Costa, alias “Fernandinho Beira-Mar,” was captured in Colombia in 2001 whilst allegedly exchanging weapons for cocaine with FARC.
The lookouts are mostly watching for police, who sporadically come into Antares to make arrests, which often end in raging firefights. They are also on alert for gunmen from the two neighboring favelas, who they are at war with. The favela on one side is controlled by their hated rivals the Third Commando, traffickers who broke away from the Reds in the early nineties. The favela on the other side is controlled by shady gunmen known as militias, made up of former police and others on a bloody mission to rid the city of drug gangs. The teenagers and young men holding the guns here have lived through this war their entire lives; it's all they know, they've no idea what peace looks like.
The Antares gunmen call all their enemies - the police, militias, and Third Commando - by the collective name alemães, or Germans. When I hear this, it makes me chuckle. Growing up in England, the enemies in our games of soldiers were Germans, but I'm amazed that Brazilians in this real battle use the same term.
I first hear an explanation that it's because Brazil actually fought in World War II, sending an expeditionary force to join the allies in the Mediterranean theater. Brazilians are proud of this campaign, and a towering metallic sculpture to 467 dead servicemen adorns Rio's Flamengo Park.
But somebody else tells me that explanation is rubbish. The real reason, he says, is that German immigrants who came to Rio often joined the police, and the name stuck. Alemãe conjures up an image of a tall white uniformed repressor.
A pasty white Brit like myself also grabs attention here, so when we get into Antares's main street we check in with the head of the residents' association to explain we are journalists. I try to be open about what I do. Back in 2001, the Brazilian investigative journalist Tim Lopes filmed gangs in a favela with a hidden camera. He had also filed another report that preceded a police crackdown. The gangsters discovered him, tied him to a tree, and conducted a "trial" in which they found him guilty. They burned his eyes with cigarettes, used a samurai sword to cut off his arms and legs while he was still alive, put his body in a tire with gasoline and set him on fire. They call this murder technique the microonda, or "microwave oven."
However, when I tell the association president we have come to document the blatant criminality, he is remarkably relaxed and gets a young guy on a motorcycle taxi to show us round. Most of these favela residents' associations, I later find out, are effectively controlled by the commando. Gangsters approve the president and use the association office as a base. In return, the commando will pump money through the association to provide for public works, building sewage systems and laying concrete on streets.
The gangsters get special popularity by paying for free street parties, known as bailes funk, or funk dances. The kids at the drug mouth tell us there is one on Friday night from midnight till dawn. "You have to check it out," Lucas says.
When we drive back to Antares late Friday, police have set up checkpoints on the main roads toward the favela. You have to go through the scrutiny of the police officers, then a stretch of no-man's-land, and then the scrutiny of the commando guards. When we go in, the police shine a flashlight at us then wave us through; but when we come out at dawn, they stop the car and search us thoroughly, looking for drugs. Why else would we have gone into Antares, they ask, if we weren't off to get high?
The drug shops are certainly doing good business that night. The favela is buzzing. We arrive just before midnight, and they are only just setting up the funk dance, but the streets are already crowded. The bocas claim a steady line of customers, and I see a woman snorting a line of cocaine off a car hood. There are more guns about than in the day, ragged teenagers and young men standing on corners with their assault rifles, chatting, sipping from plastic cups of beer.
I look around for Lucas but don't see him when another man approaches and asks who we are. He's also decked out in sports clothes but with a harder, more aggressive look than Lucas. I shake his hand and explain again I'm a British journalist interested in checking out the party.
He nods vigorously. "It's nice that foreigners like you come down here. Enjoy yourselves. Nobody is going to mess with you."
The message is implicit: Our security is guaranteed by the Red Commando. The teenagers with rifles are criminals, drug dealers, murderers. But they are the authority here. Nobody is going to mug us because that would bring attention that would be bad for business. Inside the favela, the commando gunmen are the police.
The dance finally starts around one A.M., and residents crowd into a muddy clearing in the heart of the favela, what would be a town plaza if it were paved. There's close to a thousand people, from children to grandparents, in front of a wall of speakers thirty feet high and sixty feet wide.
These parties are known as funk dances because they started back in the 1970s with American funk records. But over the decades, the music has mutated beyond recognition. In the eighties, Brazilians who went to Miami brought back records from a subgenre of hip-hop called Miami bass. It's characterized by funk rhythms re-created on synths and drum machines, which women (and sometimes men) shake their "booties" to. Home computers in the 1990s allowed Brazilians to make their own recordings, creating the unique favela funk sound.
Brazilian funk has simple electronic beats juxtaposed with singing or rapping in a distinct local style. Sometimes the vocalists talk about gangs and guns. More often they talk about sex, very explicitly. Brazil is famous (or infamous) for its liberal attitudes toward sex and showing off women's toned asses in carnival parades and game shows. This open sexuality is especially visible in the slums; favela funk involves booty shaking that would put Miami to shame.
Sure enough, in the Antares dance, lines of women in tight shorts and bikini tops thrust their backsides to the beat. The music overpowers the speakers, coming through distorted and deafening. But no one seems to care. Young and old party. A graying man dances with a plastic beer glass in hand with a trio of middle-aged women. Boys not yet teenagers practice their dance moves and burst into laughter. A woman pushes a pram with a baby somehow asleep through the fierce din. This is the time when everyone forgets about their problems, the lack of money to feed the kids, the father in prison, the brother who died in a crackle of gunfire.
As the boogying gets more furious and passionate, the commando gunmen drift onto the dance floor. They move their bodies while holding their rifles in front of them. A funk song comes on with lyrics supporting the drug traffickers. The gunmen form a line and raise their rifles in the air, shouting along with the chorus: "Red Commando! Red Commando! Red Commando!"
The Friday night action in Antares is a truly surreal scene. Yet it's only an extreme example of the way that criminal militias have become so dominant in ghettos across the Americas. Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean gangsters also organize their own street parties where people dance to songs of their glory. And lookouts watching for enemy gunmen - though normally more hidden - are a frighteningly common feature of the continent's urban sprawls.
Of course, many poor neighborhoods across the region don't have anything like this criminal presence. But Antares is no freak occurrence. In the state of Rio alone, it's likely more than a million people live in neighborhoods where the Red Commando or rival armed groups of traffickers or militias hold sway. While I watch gunmen dance with their rifles in Antares, similar scenes take place in favelas across Rio's slopes and plains.
To understand how gangs became so powerful, we have to take a closer look at the environment itself: the ghettos of Latin America and the Caribbean. In Brazil, they're called favelas; in Colombia, comunas; in Jamaica, garrisons; in Mexico, barrios or ciudades perdidas (lost cities). People also call them slums, shantytowns, and makeshift sprawls. Others complain these names are alienating and say we should think of something more positive.
But whatever we call them, ghettos are a reality of the Americas. They are physical spaces with hard boundaries, entrances and exits that take you into a world that suffers marginalization and contrasts to the society outside. Inside they can be overwhelming, the lives and problems of thousands on top of each other and entwined. And they can be exciting, the explosive growth of young people with an insatiable energy. They are the source of cutting-edge culture that sets trends in global music and fashion; the scene of raging gun battles; the home to children who have become seasoned murderers; and the setting for people showing warmth, compassion, and perseverance. Day after day.
If we are going to make any sense of organized crime in the Americas, we have to come here.
That's not to say that the poor are the cause of crime wars. Rich businessmen often pull strings and many gangs could not operate without complicit politicians. The chain of money and services linked to organized crime leads to all our doorsteps.
But ghettos are a fundamental building block of the crime world, a fertile soil where cartels and commandos grow, a source of young bloods wanting to prove themselves, a battleground where wars are fought.