The Rio-Recife Blog

Michael Jerome Wolff, Political scientist and photographer: on drugs, crime, and police and other matters of interest in Rio de Janeiro and Recife

"the most violent favela"

 Home to some 30,000 people, the Santo Amaro favela complex near downtown Recife began as a conglomerate of unregulated shanties surrounding various new factories erected during the “Estado Novo” regime of pres. Gertulio Vargas some seventy years ago.  The area at the time was predominately swampland (“mangue”), and was filled in bit by bit with dirt and debris carried by each squalid family arriving en masse from the sun-scorched countryside.  They went to work mixing soft drinks, hemming clothes, and assembling razorblades.  They came home to the same muddy, mosquito-infested squalor, decade after decade.   

 Only in the 1970s did local community leaders successfully organize to have basic services brought to the favela, including trash collection, basic sanitation, running water, and electricity.  By the 1980s Santo Amaro was politically organized, and became a significant vote center for local politicians during Brazil’s democratization years.  Since then, the construction of little plazas that rapidly deteriorate and intermittent social projects that quickly come and go became commonplace, especially during campaign periods.  However, the ills of urban poverty continue to befall the community, which has been famed the “most violent favela in Pernambuco.” 

 Around the same time the favela started to look like a real neighborhood, new waves of migrants flooded in, and amidst the confusion things began to fall apart.  The traditional family structure of the sertanejos (the rugged conservative folk from the arid sertão region of Northeastern Brazil) deteriorated in the ebb and flow of poor migrants and economic crises.  Unemployed men drank themselves into oblivion.  Their children learned the new way to be a man, and took it a step further, consuming drugs in their hopeless leisure.   Crack cocaine—here in Pernambuco made directly from coca paste—poured like rain on the startled community by the mid-1990s, and Santo Amaro lost its innocence. 

 “Today there are very few fathers in Santo Amaro,” commented a local activist.  “They are dead, in prison, or have simply abandoned their families.”  On one hand, the demise of the traditional man has opened the way for women to become the heads of households, and consequently, an unheard before voice in the community.  Illusions aside, however, women continue to suffer regular violence in their homes, and must now take on the role as breadwinner on top of it all.  And in the streets, guns still speak louder than minds.   

The Gangs

There are three umbrella gangs in Santo Amaro, corresponding to four territorial sections of the favela.  Each gang is referred to by the name of the section: Joao de Barros, Campo do Onze, “D.” (a.k.a. Demonios da Ilha), and Salgado.  The feared and respected “Junior Box” is the dono of both Campo do Onze and “D.”, ever since he successfully invaded the latter section a year ago.  He is now in prison, but still controls everything via cell phone and visits.  The dono of Joao de Barros is also in prison.  Both gangs are similar in profile.  The leaders are somewhat older (between 25-35 years old), although they use young children and teenagers for selling and security functions.  The Salgado gang, however, is principally run by teenagers, and is known to be less organized and more audacious (and consequently, more dangerous) than the others. 

 Loyal and submissive to this larger structure are subgangs and families that sell drugs out of their homes, and offer protection and other services to the main gang leaders.  It is essentially a very loose association of criminals and criminal groups, most of whom are also drug users/addicts who have simply found a way to make a living that simultaneously supports their habits.  Selling drugs is an obvious option, too, for the uneducated poor with criminal records that limit their legal marketability.  That said, gang allegiance, not only of its members but also of residents of the dominated areas, is particularly strong.  Or, rather, popular identification with the local gang is highly normalized.

 The “Law of Silence” remains in full vigor.  As in Rio de Janeiro, caguete tem de morrer—“Rats must die”—complicating or even nullifying police investigations in the area, and biasing media representation of events and conditions of life in Santo Amaro.  One resident explains: the number of homicides in the favela has not actually gone down since the implementation of the Pacto pela Vida (the ambitious results-based public security policed implemented in 2007).  With increased police presence, the drug traffickers have simply gotten more clever. They continue to kill, but take the bodies to dump elsewhere, usually as unidentified victims.  No one approaches the police about these disappearances, not even the victims’ families, for fear of retaliation. 

 Likewise, murders committed inside Santo Amaro—such as the three assassinations during an invasion just last week—are underreported by the media.  The drug traffickers removed the bodies themselves so as not to call attention from the police, which would hamper sales and increase the risk of confrontation. 

 Meanwhile, war between the gangs is relatively constant, although it is cyclical in nature.  That is, heated periods of combat and high levels of violence are followed by periods of calm due to a temporary power equilibrium.  Several residents assured me that we are currently in a period of calm, despite the murders last week.  When war is at hand, everyone is tense.  An attack could happen in any place and at any time of the day.  And “stray bullets don’t discriminate.”

 Inter-gang combat is far less cinematographic here than in Rio de Janeiro.  The weapons are limited to pistols, revolvers, and the occasional shotgun, rather than automatic rifles, machine guns, and hand grenades.  Perhaps for this reason—the short-range effectiveness of the weapons used here—larger territories are more difficult to conquer or defend for any single gang.  To illustrate, average pistol accuracy is somewhere between 10-25 yards.  Average AR-15 rifle accuracy (much used by Rio’s drug gangs), by contrast, is around 300 yards.  In any case, pistols and revolvers are still quite deadly, and once again, stray bullets don’t discriminate. 

 Most of the violent gang confrontation is due to so-called “rinchas,” or revenge attacks in response to previous aggressions.  These are not territorial disputes or conquests per se, rather collective manifestations of the hyper-macho male ego embedded in a culture that celebrates violence in the name of personal honor.  This corresponds to the Homicide Department’s categorization of “revenge motive” (see previous post), to which nearly 30 percent of all of Recife’s murders are attributed.  [note, however, the difficulty in categorizing motives: this violence is also a matter of drug trafficking and perhaps even interpersonal conflict, as everyone in a favela knows everybody]. 

 More clearly tied to the logic of non-institutionalized illicit commerce, the rules and norms of transactions and general behavior are enforced by the use or threat of violence.  A great many homicides in Santo Amaro, and Recife as a whole, are regulatory sanctions of the non-institutionalized market.  This means that most victims are somehow related to drugs and drug trafficking.  There is no tolerance for indebtedness, for example.  Drug addicts are those who most often die because they are unable to pay their consumption, which at some point in the collapsing functionability of their lives comes to be supported by that oh-so-bloodily taxed credit system of drug traffickers.  Next in the mortal line are those lowly drug traffickers who also use drugs.  They kill so often because if their users learn that it is okay not to pay, it will soon be them in a coffin for owing their wholesaler. 

 The desperation of drug traffickers always riding the fragile wave of indebtedness mixes with an acquired tasted for extreme cruelty, and it is this that often affects the totally innocent, or those who only by association with someone involved in crime must pay for the sins of others. In Santo Amaro, for example, the families of the three men who were killed last week were forced to flee their homes or otherwise face extermination.  The parents must pay their murdered sons’ debts.  Death alone is just a warning to others.  The debt lives on long after the pulse of the addict is gone. 

 In some spectacularly cruel cases, the sisters and mothers of indebted addicts were beaten and raped in front of them, but this is just sadism and evil. 

 Meanwhile, gang leaders often offer assistance to needy families, at least to those who are willing to ask for it.  The purchase of medicines, food baskets, and other basic necessities are particularly common, although not to the degree in which the criminal giving tree has developed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.  It is somewhat more difficult here due to the relative poverty of the local drug trade itself, and to the more clandestine structure of drug trafficking in general.  That is, there is less to give, and it is harder to find.  In any case, the return on these partial and petty benefits is collective.  Everyone pays for them with silence.

and to conclude…

None of this is to say that Santo Amaro is a living hell, of course.  And, of course, it is not.  At least I enjoyed the quiet narrow streets of dirt and scattered stone; lined with quaint little countryside homes painted in myriad pastels; the clean laundry draped from house to house and drying in the glorious sun; the playful assaults of children and the sugar-sweet smiles of their mothers; the crippled old men stuck forever with a wry smile in a porch chair; the occasional lump of human being passed out with a bottle of glue stuck to her nose… 

 I tend to focus on the bad things, but this is never to say I am not actually talking about paradise on Earth. 

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