Last night, police in Rio de Janeiro captured Antonio Bonfim Lopes, better known as “Nem,” the top leader in the drug trade in Rocinha, the largest of Rio’s favelas. Obviously, the arrest of one leader is not enough to end the drug trade, or even the power of this particular gang. Nem’s arrest is symbolically important, certainly, and it’s conceivable that there is some impact in the drug trade in Rocinha, but one man does not an entire trade network make.
At the same time, Nem’s arrest isn’t meaningless, either. In the recent past, the capture of one leader regularly fueled increased gang violence as other drug gangs try to take over the neighborhood, a process that is documented in Patrick Neate and Damian Platt’s excellent Culture Is Our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro. Beginning in the late-2000s, however, the police began employing fundamentally different tactics in combating the drug trade in the favelas, first in São Paulo in 2008 and then in Rio de Janeiro in 2009. Whereas police once stormed a favela, captured or killed some drug traffickers (and, regularly, innocent bystanders), they now are maintaining a state presence in the favelas, allowing the government and NGOs to come in and improve infrastructure in the favelas in an effort to more closely tie favela residents to the government. Back in 2008, I thought this was a great idea; today, I’m a little more mixed on it. Certainly, immediate withdrawal only continued the cycle of violence, and drug wars between gangs was devastating the lives of everyday residents of the favelas whether or not the police were present. However, as the project has developed, it’s become clear that an ongoing police presence in the favelas is creating the environment of a virtual police-state on the micro-level. Additionally, I acknowledge, that everyday improvements designed to make life better for citizens are also designed to improve government access to the favelas and provide a means for the modern nation-state to improve its ability to monitor its citizens. Each of these issues I object to on a variety of principles, but at the same time, improvements in everyday infrastructure for the residents of a neighborhood are still improvements (which in turn makes the state’s exertion of its authority even more complicated and problematic). Nonetheless, even for all these objections, the new tactics seem to be actually obtaining results and are better than the old tactic of invade, attack, exit.
In another vein, while the US media has picked up the story, unsurprisingly, the Brazilian media has much more to say on this story than the US media does. As is often the case with Brazilian media, they include the fact that the foreign press is reporting on this story; this isn’t the first time foreign headlines about Brazil become headlines themselves in Brazil, but it’s a phenomenon that I’m always mildly surprised by and uncertain how to interpret. Is it a subtle continuation of the importance to Brazilians of the idea of how the foreign world views Brazil? Is it some effort to prove their worth internationally (the “mutt-complex,” as one Brazilian friend described it to me)? Is it something else? I’m not sure, but I am always simultaneously amused and befuddled by this fact.
Another detail in the Brazilian version of the story is the puzzling early reports of who was trying to smuggle Nem out of Rocinha. Nem was captured in the trunk of a car being driven out of the country, and the three men in the car were arrested as well. However, the report says that one of the men claimed to work for the consulate of the Congo, and another said he was an honorary consul for the Congo. Obviously, this could be the excuse Brazilians provided. But the men could also be who they said they were; in that case, this is…curious, and it will be interesting to see if/how this aspect of the story develops.