I grew up in Rio de Janeiro in a very middle-class neighborhood. Not the fanciest one, but also not the poorest. Very much in the middle. This neighborhood also had the characteristic of being surrounded by hills. Many if not most hills in Rio de Janeiro have favelas. Favelas are poor neighborhoods that are formed by poor people who mostly want to live close to where the jobs are. Because I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, studied in middle-class schools and had a middle-class family I was in danger of only knowing middle-class people. The thing that prevented me from that the most was going to church. In church, I lived with people from all kind of social backgrounds – including people who lived in favelas.
The history of Rio de Janeiro is mostly a history of expansion from the area we today call downtown. On several occasions, poor people (including my grandfather and his mother) were relocated (or frankly expelled) from their houses by the government that wanted to make some urban reform. People faced two options: to be relocated to far removed areas, far away from their jobs, or to occupy some undeveloped area in the vicinities of where they previously lived and form a favela.
Because Rio de Janeiro is the historic capital of Brazil, it received a lot of investment by governments over the decades. Many governments wanted to make it a vitrine of Brazil’s development. Also, Brazil has a strong history of developmentalism. Especially since Getúlio Vargas, who rule the country from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954, Brazilian presidents tend to believe that it is their job to bring economic development to the country. The higher the GDP growth, the best. I mean, who am I to say that GDP growth is a bad thing?! But we have a lot of stories worldwide of countries that grew too fast in too little time leading among other things to major population dislocations and new pockets of poverty around great cities. Lagos, in Nigeria, is a textbook example. So is Caracas, in Venezuela. So is Rio de Janeiro. This kind of development is pretty much like using steroids: the results are fast, but the side effects are terrible. Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to “flip the page” from Vargas in the 1990s, but Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff returned to developmentalist policies in the 2000s. Even Jair Bolsonaro often talks as a developmentalist, apparently a tic from his military years. Anyways, developmentalism led to the fast growth of Rio de Janeiro over the decades – and the formation of new favelas.
One of the best stories of developmentalism in Rio de Janeiro is the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. Until the 1960s this part of the city, caught between the hills and the ocean, was basically desert. That’s when the government commissioned the architect and urbanist Lucio Costa to develop the area. Mr. Costa was also responsible for designing the city of Brasília, and it shows: Brasília and Barra da Tijuca are fairly similar. Not my kind of city or neighborhood. It’s very hard or even impossible to explore Barra da Tijuca on foot. Its area is roughly the size of Manhattan, but it has no subway lines. The bus lines are not very dependable. The city blocks are very large. Everything is very distant.
In my evaluation, Mr. Costa thought that he was God. Brasília and Barra and very interesting if looked from above, from the sky. But if you are on the ground level and don’t have a car, they are just not friendly. But that’s how modernists (including socialists) are: they swear they love humanity but hate human beings.
The news that the government was developing the Barra da Tijuca area spread fast. Many families came to the region looking for jobs in construction. Many of them settled in the vicinity of Rio das Pedras. Rio das Pedras became one of the main favelas of the region. In the absence of government, people started to organize themselves in neighborhood associations. Even with most of the construction projects done, the families never left. Barra da Tijuca became an affluent neighborhood with many jobs. Alongside came drug trafficking.
The “pre-history” of drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro is almost idyllic. You just have to watch the movie City of God (2002). Of course, one could not sell drugs in fancy neighborhoods like Ipanema or Copacabana, where the government is strongly present.
So, most drug trafficking happened in the favelas, including Rio das Pedras. The first generation of drug dealers was mostly respectful towards residents of the favelas and other poor neighborhoods. Some even became legendary for pacifying the neighborhoods from other forms of crime: because they didn’t want to have trouble with the police, drug dealers would punish criminals themselves. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led drug dealers to become more and more violent.
In response to drug dealers and the slackness of the government, people organized in militias. What once were neighborhood associations became paramilitary organizations. Just like happened with the drug dealers, the vigilantes were initially friendly towards the people living in the neighborhoods. However, this changed very fast. The dispute for territory led militias to become more and more violent. Eventually, drug dealers and militias became mostly indistinguishable. Some militia leaders entered politics.
Marcelo Freixo, a Rio de Janeiro politician of the PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party – as I said before, a contradiction in terms) rose to fame in the 2000s for presiding over a parliamentary inquiry on the militias. Mr. Freixo had a character inspired on him in the movie Elite Squad 2 (2010). The first Elite Squad (2007) was a very good movie. The sequel, not so much. Elite Squad is somewhat based on real events and tells the story of (what else?) BOPE, an elite squad in the Rio de Janeiro military police (somewhat analogous to the SWAT), especially during the visit of Pope John Paul II to the city in the late 1990s. The movie has some similarities to Black Hawk Down (2001). If you haven’t watched it and want to be spoil free, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.
Pope John Paul II decided to stay in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by favelas. The BOPE was responsible for his security. Although disagreeing with the strategic intelligence of allowing the Pope to stay in a dangerous region of the city, the squad did its job. In very military fashion, “orders are orders”. The movie shows the police officers as very dubious figures: they are extremely violent and often disrespectful towards citizens. But they are also very honest and dutybound. Captain Nascimento, the main character, is a tragic figure. He became a police officer to protect innocent citizens. He discovers that by obeying orders he is often just putting his life in risk for very little or no results. Worse, he is misunderstood by all those around him, including his family.
Even his son ends up calling him a fascist. Elite Squad also portrays the drug dealers in a nuanced way. They are violent and vengeful, but Captain Nascimento himself understands that no one grows up dreaming about becoming a drug dealer. Drug dealers and BOPE members fight a private war and ironically might be the only ones to truly understand one another. The real villains of the movie are the upper-middle class youngsters who use drugs, financing the drug dealers who the BOPE fights. It is against them that the police officers direct most of their rage.
So, I believe that Elite Squad is a very good movie, that pictures quite well how life in Rio de Janeiro is for many people. Most of the time it is hard to precisely identify villains or heroes. However, no wonder, despite being very popular, the movie was trashed by leftist intellectuals who called it fascist. The sequel gains in quality in almost everything but the characters, and this makes it worse than the original. The villains are completely villainous and the heroes, heroic. It lacks the nuances of the original. The character inspired by Marcelo Freixo is morally perfect. The vigilantes whom he fights are cartoonish evil.
Brazilian and international media gave much attention last year to the assassination of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro politician who, just like Mr. Freixo, was a member of the PSOL. Ms. Franco’s assassination, like any other, is a tragedy. The police investigation is still ongoing, and no one really knows who killed her, but it seems very likely that she was murdered by members of a militia. Despite what international media might lead one to believe, Ms. Franco was far from being the first Rio de Janeiro politician to be murdered in the last few years. Mr. Freixo himself is under police protection for many years now. Other politicians from several political parties were not so lucky and didn’t receive the same attention from the media. The left’s last blow against president Jair Bolsonaro is to say that one of his sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, is somehow connected to Ms. Franco assassination. In their narrative, Flávio would be connected to militias who in turn killed Ms. Franco. All things are possible. Not all are plausible. Definitely, not all are proven. To be honest, there are people in the right saying that Jean Wyllys, also from the PSOL, is connected to Jair Bolsonaro’s assassination attempt last September. Maybe they should all go have a drink together. They have much in common.
Making a generalization (but I hope not an overgeneralization), politicians and intellectuals from the left tend to romanticize drug dealers. They are pictured as social victims or social bandits, almost Robin Hoods. On the other hand, they vilify the militias in a cartoonish way. Just like Elite Squad 2. I began this text mentioning that going to church prevented me from entirely growing in a middle-class bubble. Because of that, I heard people saying that old drug dealers had at least some sense of justice. Younger ones (sometimes as young as 16 years old) are almost animals, psychopaths without any sense of empathy. If you watched The Godfather trilogy you know what I mean. I also heard people frustrated with the government, that offered no protection against criminals. The same people were (at least initially) supportive of militias.
Politicians in the right, in turn, consider unimaginable to legalize any drug. But on the other hand, they were very slow to understand the danger of the militias, and citizens making justice with their own hands in general.
So, this is a story about Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil’s most important cities. For decades politicians believed it was their job to bring economic development to the country – and to the city. This led to fast economic growth, which in turn led to the development of favelas. Favelas are areas where the official government is generally not present.
Therefore, its residents form neighborhood associations. Favelas are also places where, because of the lack of government, drug dealers can work in relative peace. However, over time drug dealers become more and more violent in their dispute for territory. The neighborhood associations, in turn, become militias. And the militias quite often become mafias. Some politicians rise to fame fighting these mafias, but the policies they defend are the same that begin this story in the first place. Politicians on the right are accused of dangerous liaisons. And no one seems to be willing to limit government to its primary function of protecting life and private property.