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

                                         Favela do Bode: What’s got your goat?

The Favela do Bode, near downtown Recife, is a community of some 11,000 people clumped into tight quarters on the banks of and extending into the Capibaribe River.  Just half a kilometer from one of Recife’s main thoroughfares, and bordering some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the cobblestone entries into Bode quickly dissolve into a labyrinth of muddy alleys and plank wood walkways stilted over swampy drainage canals.  The maze ends at a sort of cul-de-sac of palafitas (elevated shanty homes).  Among the many families that have made a home a few feet above the calm and highly polluted waters, there are a few curiosities of entrepreneurship: an elevated pig farm; the remains of an elevated library, graffitied with quotes from Oscar Wilde.

“We are all laying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

 Looking beyond the heaps of trash lining the riverbank and floating under homes, there is something particularly peaceful in residence on the water, as anyone who has a past time of fishing at the end of a dock can understand.  And there is a certain pride of being in the faces of those who live in the palafitas, a recognition that their home is of a special quality.  This, despite the precariousness of it.  Palafitas, after all, are always the first squatter homes to go in any government removal scheme, and in general, outsiders see in them the quintessence of misery. 

 Sometimes misery floats by, but the river carries it away. 

15-year old Aline found a bloated cadaver last year while rowing out to catch muscles.  She banged it with an oar out of curiosity, and she shuttered when it wheezed.  She rushed back to tell someone, but the dead man did not wait around.  He broke free from the thicket and headed out to sea.

 Things have been relatively calm in Bode lately.  No one has been killed during the last two or three months.  “It used to be one or two every week,” a man says as he points to a palm tree where a teenager was executed a few years ago. 

 “Has it improved because of the Pacto pela Vida?” I ask, referring to the state’s big public security initiative.  He cannot say for sure.  A lot more police were hired, he says, so perhaps it has something to do with it.  But he says they are all poorly trained, and they systematically abuse their power.  They rarely patrol inside the favela, rather they hang out in groups of five or more out by the main road, harassing people as they enter and leave. They treat everyone inside the favela equally.  That is, they treat everyone like a criminal.  Further, they continue to demand bribes from local thieves and drug dealers in exchange for the blind eye of the law. 

 Nevertheless, a relative security exists within the favela itself.  It is a small, tight knit community where everybody knows everyone, such that property or other crimes are hard to commit without people knowing who committed it.  And there are informal mechanisms of enforcement.  A number of policemen and ex-policemen live in Bode, for example, and they are often the go-to men when petty crimes need to be punished.  A gun and a threat to bring in his uniformed friends is usually enough to recover some stolen goods.  However, a tacit agreement orders relationship between resident police and drug traffickers.  They leave each other alone.  It is the only way.

 The drug dealers in Bode today are less useful and sophisticated than in many other communities.  Nearly every street in the community has at least one family or group of youngsters who sell crack and marijuana out of their homes.  They are for the most part all independent, meaning they are weak and incapable of projecting power over the community beyond the radius of a block of shanties.  The majority are also drug users, and took up the profession to support their own habits.  When they consume too much and cannot pay back the suppliers, they wonder out into the thoroughfares to rob pedestrians and the occasional quick mart.  Sometimes they own their own pistols and revolvers.  Often they rent or borrow from someone else.  Debts accumulate, and that is usually why people wind up floating out to sea. 

 A pattern is revealing itself as I go from community to community inquiring into the history of crime.  Between ten and fifteen years ago, crack was introduced into all of Recife’s favelas, and has since dominated the narcotics market as a whole.  Marijuana, more bulky and therefore more risky to traffic—and less potent (addictively speaking) as a guarantor of regular clientele—has become a non-concern even to state authorities.  All of the focus is on crack, as it is this to which the insane elevation of violence in all of the Brazilian northeast has corresponded. 

But the pattern I speak of concerns criminal organization.  Nearly all of the favelas I have visited to date had been “controlled” by a drug boss for years (and in some cases decades) back when marijuana was king.  In Bode, the last boss was Carlinhos Capa-Preta, the brother of a Military Policeman, who ran the drug trade since the early 1990s.  He was not so much respected as feared, but he maintained a ruthless sort of order in the community.  He did kill people, but he kept the other criminals from killing each other.   He and most of the other similarly styled local drug bosses in favelas across Recife were killed in the years between 1997 and 2002, the same time period during which the “crack epidemic” overwhelmed the city. 

 The association between the fall of the stable drug bosses and the rise of crack is a preliminary analysis at best, but it is clear that there is a different logic to the sale and distribution of different types of drugs, even though they are often sold together, side-by-side, by the same venders.  While the sale of marijuana might be characterized by stable but irregular clients with little need to purchase on credit, crack quickly produces a constant regular clientele disposed to much greater risks to maintain a habit incomparably more addictive than its green predecessor.  The results are that entry into the competitive seller market is much easier with crack, allowing independent dealers to rival established drug bosses; financial gains are much quicker, facilitating the acquisition of firearms, and opening the way to an all-around more violent mechanism of transaction and territorial control; debts are more frequently undertaken, and less frequently paid back, leading to a massive increase in “settlement” killings, and; property crime and armed robbery increase because, well, if you don’t pay up by Monday, then on Tuesday… and no one really wants to die.

 In short, the introduction of crack in Recife has decentralized criminal organizations, fragmenting them and precluding any type of sophisticated organizational development.  Several police officers and state agents I have spoken with have claimed that this fragmentation is due to the police and their being “on top of things” here in Recife, as opposed to the much more dramatic public security situations of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.  To some extent this is true.  The police have contributed to this fragmentation by capturing or killing a great many low-level drug traffickers in Recife’s favelas.  But to spend time in these impoverished communities is to see a different story altogether.  There are no police.  State institutions are rare and in tatters.  The structure of crime is determined not by the state’s presence, but by its absence, and by poverty and the nature of the illicit product itself. 

In the meantime, the residents of favela do Bode muddle through.  A group of teenagers sit together in the street, reviewing notes from a lone notebook.  Women stand in their doorways watching the world float by, or pass the time over gossip and painting each other’s nails.  Families hunch over to de-shell muscles collected from the river.  Evening hangs over a community that is proud in its being, but revolted by its plight.  

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