Murder, manslaughter, and robbery with lethal consequence are daily business in Brazil. On average 160 people are a victim of violent death per day. This is one murder every nine minutes. In comparison, the homicide rate of Germany totaled up to 296 people in the year 2015. This is even less than one homicide per day. As shocking as these numbers are as diverging is the criminality in the different states and cities of Brazil. While the more rural areas and southern states are considered to be more peaceful and less violent, it seethes in the metropolitan areas and the northern states. And this has two fundamental reasons: gang rivalry and poverty. Thus, many juveniles in the favela, for example, try to escape poverty by joining the so-called “gangues“. Therewith, they experience an imaginary world of permanent prosperity and long-life fraternity. But in reality, it is a world full of criminality, in which the minority reaches an age of 40 years – or live out their lives in prison. They deal with cocaine, marihuana, and crack. They guard the favela against “intruders”, even with their own lives, and just know the “lei of favela” (the law of the favela).
Dangerous gang memberships
One of the eldest and still active gangs of Rio de Janeiro is the “Comando Vermelho” (red command), which was founded in the state prisons of the city in the 1970s. Originally a guardian brigade for prisoners, the gang has risen to one of the biggest drug traffickers in Latin America. To the present, they trade with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and exchange illegal weapons against cocaine. This is sold laced or as crack to prostitutes and drug addicts in the red-light district Vila Mimosa as well as in the bairros Laranjeiras, Cinelândia, and Central. Nobody should linger in these districts at night, under no circumstances. I know this from my personal experience.
As I wanted to travel from Botafogo, the district at the bottom of the legendary Christ the Redeemer, to the bus terminal “Novo Rio” in last December, I needed to transfer from the metro to the tramway VLT at Cinelândia. At 9 PM. Unfortunately, the VLT wasn’t working at that day due to a manifestation. And so, I was standing there, in the middle of the Praça Floriano. Without money in my pocket to pay a cab. Wherever I was looking, I spotted drug addicts who mainlined or drunk another bottle of beer. As fast as possible I tried to reach the next cash machine. But I didn’t remain undetected. Immediately, I was called “gostosa” (delicious thing) by a group of drunks. They whistled at me and even offered me to share a bed with them. Indeed, they didn’t have one. Or did they talk about the street of Rio and the snitched cardboards? Luckily – and this is a real curiosity – the cash machine accepted my foreign credit card. Normally, cashless payments are a risky game in Brazil. If the cash machine of the „Banco do Brasil“ was working in Rio, it doesn’t mean that one can get cash at this bank in Belo Horizonte.
Fast money, fast fame
How distinct the drug traffic, and arms trade in Brazil really is, was shown in the recently published report by the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), a special unit of the Polícia Militar which is responsible for the pacification of the favelas. Only in the last 12 months, about 270 kilograms of cocaine, crack and marihuana were confiscated by routine inspections and operations. Furthermore, 155 pistols, 71 revolvers and 15 rifles were found illegally in private hands. In total 1’500 were detained temporarily by the UPP due to their involvement in criminal activities. As happened to the 27-year-old Maria Doannes Moura Rodrigues who was caught flatfooted while selling cocaine at the hotspot Lapa last weekend. Now, she is awaiting her trial. About ten Reais (2.70 Euros) cost five grams of cocaine. The street price for a small stone of crack averages at five Reais (1.40 Euros). Marihuana is with two Reais (0.65 Euros) per gram even cheaper. And the open-air-market remains open 24/7. Well, no surprise that the number of drug addicts is still increasing in Brazil – despite several governmental anti-drug-campaigns. By now the South American country is the world leader in crack consumption with about one Million addicts.
Even, if there are taken drastic measures for preventive detections and imprisonments of drug dealers, arms dealers, and drug bosses, this doesn’t solve the actual problem. Because the rivalries of the gangs are imported from the streets to the prisons. And they are in fact totally crowded. According to official information, the Brazilian prisons offer space for about 400,000 inmates, but currently there are more than 656,000 in custody. Every month the number of inmates increases by 3,000 which intensifies the problem. Indeed, the Brazilian justice minister Alexandre de Moraes plans the construction of new prisons. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that the number of prisoners has doubled in the last 15 years. The number of police officers and jailers, by contrast, hasn’t increased much over time. This imbalance not uncommonly leads to extreme confrontations and revolts, as happened recently in Manaus and Boa Vista.
Manaus as a symbol of Brazil’s gang violence
In a 17-hours-lasting frenzy of blood, violence, and power play, which started punctually on New Year’s Day, members of the drug cartel “Familia do Norte” (Family of the North) massacred members of the rival “Primeiro Comando da Capital” (First Command of the Capital, PCC) in the private prison “Complexo Penitenciário Anísio Jobim” in Manaus (state of Amazonas). More than 60 inmates were tortured, 56 were murdered in cold blood. Further 180 prisoners could escape. Just some of them are imprisoned again. The majority is still on the loose. While the revolt was happening, the jailers, being in the minority, were completely powerless. They were frightened that an intervention could lead to an escalation of the situation because they had the suspicion that some prisoners had smuggled in weapons. It is known from the investigators that the revolt was probably planned month-long as a subterranean escape tunnel supposes. Moreover the “Familia do Norte” manifested the hatred against the PCC in several graffitis by declaring that the rival isn’t welcomed in the North of Brazil.
Just a few days after Manaus, another revolt occurred in the state prison “Penitenciária Agrícola de Monte Cristo” in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, the Northernmost state of Brazil. In total, 33 pinmates were killed, seven of them decapitated and six burnt alive. Worse than these brutal murders is the fact that the video of the decapitation was published and shared on different social media channels. We can only hope that the problem won’t intensify in the upcoming years. But the latest history proves that Brazil has neither learnt from the drug trafficking nor from the prison revolts. Hence, the state prison in Boa Vista has remained one of many prisons which are crowded by rivaling gang members. To be exact, there are 1,475 inmates in a prison which has space for just 750 prisoners. Accordingly, UPP and other special units are just onlookers in the power play of drugs, weapons, and gang membership.