Analysis, Feature
19 October, 2009

Under the shadow of guns: drug lords’ tyrannical fiefdom in Brazil

Last weekend, central urban areas of Rio de Janeiro were once again a theater for war among drug gangs fighting to take each other’s control of drug fiefdoms. The police intervened and the battle became a tripartite one: gangs fighting each other and the police fighting both.

Sergio Abranches

There is nothing new in this brief report, only a new death-roll, and the hard fact that this tragedy has become a routine event of city life.

Some more facts. A police helicopter was downed, three of the six policemen in aircraft were killed by the explosion. The third one died today at the hospital. The helicopter was very likely hit by an anti-aircraft shot from one of the gangs.

The Brazilian military have the monopoly over the use of heavy military guns and assault weaponry, as well as the power to regulate third party use. They have denied permission for Rio’s police to mount a heavy machine gun on an armored helicopter to cover their people in action on the ground.

But they are totally silent and complacent about the fact that criminals do use such weaponry to kill innocent people and policemen. Weapon not rarely stolen or smuggled from military bases.

They are planning to spend an awful lot of money on air fighters to defend Brazil against unlikely external threats. At the same time, the frontier base up the Rio Negro, on the Amazon, next to Colombia, doesn’t have even a single powerful boat to prevent drug traffickers to come down the river from the border with their loads of cocaine paste. They simply see the traffickers to accelerate their powerful four motor boat and leave the military staring powerless at the river foaming behind it.

Over three days of street combat in Rio, 21 people were killed, (roughly half the number killed on the suicidal bombing in Iran this week) several injured. There was, again, controversy about police action. Some claim it may have caused the death of at least three innocent people. There are obvious difficulties in separating criminals from innocent bystanders in action. But there is also clear signs of faulty intelligence and neglect of early-warning signs that might have led to preventative measures, saving lives.

This violence (homicides) is killing three times more young people from 15 to 25 years old, of which 97% male, and 83% black males.

Cut to a slum or popular neighborhood.

Action: One looks at any slum or poor neighborhood of any Brazilian metropolitan cities and sees the signs of neglect, absence of public authority, basic services, aesthetic degradation, garbage spread all over.

No wonder they’re becoming the fiefdoms of drug-lords or paramilitary militias, often formed by active policemen, monopolistically providing paid illegal, services such as access to cable TV, the Internet, light, gas, and, obviously, security.

Cut to any street of Ipanema, Gávea or Leblon, upper middle class neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. All three are circled by growing slums.

Action: One doesn’t look close uphill, where they are. One should now look at the streets below. One then sees what bus drivers are doing: crossing red lights, driving dangerously, disobeying the most elementary transit laws. One looks again, and will likely see police around taking no action. One more look to see a bus parked irregularly, the driver pissing on the sidewalk, aloof to pedestrians, or admonitions.

Public transportation is a public concession, hence a service city government licenses private companies to explore. They should be severely punished for disobeying rules, and even more, for breaking the law. But they aren’t. City governments have more pressing issues to attend to.

One moves to the door of a private school where wealthy children are educated. Students are arriving or leaving school. One sees tens of SUVs, and expensive cars irregularly parked, most conducted by paid drivers, transforming the neighborhood transit into a chaotic series of transgressions. One looks again, to see the police giving protection to the elite’s drivers violating sociability rules, and organizing transgression, not enforcing the law.

Cut. Move to a busy street in Ipanema.

One asks how many people walking on the streets have been victims of petty robbery, armed robbery, car theft. Many will answer affirmatively. One asks how many went to a police precinct to register the occurrence. Only victims of  car theft will answer affirmatively, because it is a necessary step to get insurance money.

People who did complain about purse or wallet thefts, petty robbery incidents, only do it once. The regular answer the get from the police is “we have bigger problems to deal with, problems like yours happen at every minute”.

Sociability is gravely compromised in the neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. But it is almost impossible in the slums and poor communities. The innocent, working population in these areas is a victim of public neglect, and subject to what I once called tyrannical banditry. They use a well-known strategy of social control that combines in variable dosages actual violence (summary executions, demonstration killing, beating, torturing, and several forms of harassment); threat of violence; and private favors substituting for public service. They use the unattended needs of the population they are tyrannizing on their own benefit, the same way clientele politics does.

Cut to a few years back.

Action: B. a former assistant of mine, today an excellent police reporter for a local newspaper, drives her car uphill, crossing a slum, where a black friend of hers lives. They are both doing voluntary church work at the time. As they work after hours, she drives him home. That saves him about and hour and a half if he were to go by bus. To her it is a 30 minute detour. She drops him at the farthest point she can go with her car, and drives back downhill.

There comes a youth on his motorcycle carrying a bicycle across the hear rack, so that one wheel goes out to the left, and the other to the right. The way is too narrow. She couldn’t drive pass him without hitting the bike. There are no sideways, nor sidewalks. She stops. He goes on, accelerates, and breaks down the side mirror of her car.

She moves away. A few meters downwards she’s stopped by a large, shirtless black men, on his shorts, holding a 9mm automatic pistol. He asks her what happened. She said, “nothing important, just an accident”. He replied, it was no accident, but an aggression, and added that he knew she was a “straight girl”, doing “cool community work”, and that she deserved to be respected. She thanks him and says she’d like to leave. He says no. Tells her to leave the car blocking the narrow street and walk back uphill with him.

She has no way out, so up she goes. He takes her to a house, with an empty large room, like a meeting room without furniture. A solitary working table lies at the center, where the boss is seated, with two 9mm pistols each next to one of his hands. A brief dialogue ensues, with the first one telling him what happened. The boss asks who did it. “Johnny”, the other answers. “Summon him”, demands the boss.

Johnny comes light speed. He confirms his doing, and the boss says: “You know what to do.” The boy says “yes”. He apologizes. Apologies accepted. The boss says: “not enough”. “She has to fix her car,” and asks her how much would it cost to fix the car. She says it was an old car, no compensation required. The boss asks his assistant, how much, and he estimates R$ 80.00 (about 1/3 of the minimum wage at the time). He boss looks at the boy, the boy takes the amount from his pocket and gives it to her. The boss says: “next time, you know the punishment,” and to her, “you can come and go safely around here. You’re doing good to my community. We have zero tolerance for such disrespectful behavior here.” The boy leaves. The large black soldier takes her to her car, other assistants open the way so that she can drive unimpeded out of the slum.

Zero tolerance to small aggressions, with people breaking the rules of sociability, vandalizing others’ property, that’s what sociologist James Q. Wilson would say public authorities should do. Fighting only grand thefts, organized crime, massive violence, is useless, it public authorities let disorder, transgression and disrespect become part of daily life and city culture. It only leads to cycles, where waves of even greater violence alternate with brief moments of peace at the shadow of the guns of both criminals and the police. It is not peace, just a moment of silence following the trauma of death.

This sort of context of crime and violence is a complex one. It is systemic. But complexity does not mean that solutions have to be grandiose. They often imply a daily routine of combating tolerance, laxity with the rules, and compromising.

Many intellectuals and professionals who address the problems of crime and violence, and not only in Brazil, say that the “broken windows” diagnosis is just right-wing ideology, not a working, or proven theory. That’s the wrong way to look into it. Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter on New York, in his book “The Tipping Point”, makes a good counterpoint to this argument. There is evidence that it works, but most important of all, democracy is about legitimate order, monopoly of the use of force by entrusted public authorities, also accountable for their doings. Disorder, impunity and corruption are anti-democratic. The enforcement of law and rules legitimately made is of the essence of democratic rule. The enforcement of laws and rules, made by bandits, enforced with violence at their will, defines tyranny. Like in the case of my former assistant.

Street violence and the tyrannical social structure imposed by drug lords to the popular communities across metropolitan Brazil are symptoms of a broader process of urban decay. Cities are uglier, dirtier, more disorderly; traffic is more violent and undisciplined; people don’t trust each other; the wealthy are building self-sufficient bunkers to isolate themselves from the “city”, and from “those others”, mostly “black others”. The number of armored private cars increases every month.

People discuss all these signs of decay, fear, distrust, and failed governance at dinner, casually, as if they were normal traits of contemporary living. Like a new job offer, or buying fashionables. Complacency kills, but no one seems to realize it.

It obviously kills far less within the well-to-do, the upper middle classes, than among the poor and the lower middle classes, living in the decayed neighborhoods at the borders of slums, and among poor, working, and lower middle class people living in the slums. They are not violence breeders, nor potential criminals. Poverty does not generate crime and violence. Neglect and disorder do. The poor, mainly black males are their victims.

Another argument is that the “broken windows” theory would lead to prejudice. Where there are fears of prejudice is because prejudice is already a trait of that society’s culture. Besides, it can be applied to overt prejudice and the treatment of minority groups. Violence stems from failed institutions and lack of civic pride. Democratic order, “fixing broken windows”, could help to contain violence, reduce fear, and to create livable streets and neighborhoods while making them more enjoyable, good looking, and sustainable.

If we keep our windows broken, our hearts will also be broken and we will have to survive under the shadow of the guns.

Tags: authoritarianism, , broken windows, crime, , drug dealers, Rio de Janeiro, slums,