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The Brazilian Issue

A Pit Stop On The Cocaine Corridor

In 1982, Rio de Janeiro had a lower crime rate than New York City. This was the year that the Calabrian Mafia began using a South American smuggling route affectionately known as the Cocaine Corridor.

By Brian Mier, Photos By Douglas Engle

A patrol unit in the Dona Marta slum in the beachfront Botafogo district of Rio. Drug traffickers were driven out in December 2008, and as a result, young police recruits have set up permanent posts in the neighborhood. It’s part of a new community-policing program, which will be implemented in other areas if successful.

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for more photos by Douglas Engle


In 1982, Rio de Janeiro had a lower crime rate than New York City. This was also the year that the Calabrian Mafia began using a South American smuggling route affectionately known as the Cocaine Corridor. Throughout the next decade, much of the powder going up American and European noses came over the Andes and through the Amazon jungle before passing through Rio, home to the busiest port in Brazil. The export business flourished, but something unforeseen happened—the city’s large middle-class fell in love with the drug they were helping to push to the rest of the world.

If you’ve been following the media’s coverage of the favelas throughout the years, you probably already know how militias and gangs gained so much power. For the rest of you, here’s a brief history lesson. The booming local snoot market gave rise to three drug-trafficking gangs: the Red Command, the Third Command, and the Friends of the Friends, a group that is rumored to consist of former military-police officers. The traffickers rapidly took over Brazil’s mountainside slums—known as favelas—and started to make lots of money and kill lots of people. Of course, the cops followed, and corruption began to rot everyone’s soul. Soon the police formed illegal militias to fight the narcotics gangs and extort money from the favelas they were “protecting.”

“The militias really started when local store owners began to pay some police officers to kick homeless people off the sidewalks,” said a schoolteacher who refused to give her name. “They’re really just off-duty police and some firemen, but they create a parallel power. It’s very difficult for us to talk about it because when you do that you become a target.”


Over the past 20 years, there have been more than 100,000 reported murders in Rio. According to a 2008 United Nations report, police forces are responsible for almost 18 percent of all deaths within the city. This means cops have been killing nearly three people per day for the past two decades. It’s a paradox because, according to its GDP, Rio is the third-richest city in South America. But the violence isn’t happening among the wealthy. It takes place within the clusters of these homemade shanties, nearly all of which are controlled by either a drug gang or a militia. The lack of public services and persistent drug-related violence are suppressing forces in the favelas, creating a vicious cycle that makes it virtually impossible for residents to leave. No matter how pretty or cool

City of God

made the favelas look, a lot of the people who live in these regions are hardworking folks who would get the fuck out of there if they could.

I am an American who has lived in Brazil off and on since 1991 and currently work as an urban planner for an international NGO. I decided to write this article after signing up at a new movie-rental store in my neighborhood. They asked me to fill out two pages worth of personal info, which I thought was unusual. Right before I was about to check out my first DVDs, I saw a giant homemade Batman logo painted on the ceiling. It is the tag of a local militia called the League of Justice that has a leader nicknamed Batman. I realized that I had just handed all my personal information over to them. I decided to try and get some answers by posing as a drunk American tourist. I knew that if the wrong people caught wind of what I was really doing, there was a reasonable chance of being drawn and quartered or put in the “microwave” (a form of execution where tires filled with gasoline are piled around you and ignited).


A former coworker of mine in Rio lives in a community controlled by a militia. She refused to let me visit or use her name, believing it would be far too dangerous. So I telephoned to ask whether she’d rather live in a favela run by drug lords. “I pay my taxes, I have a right to security, and yet I still have to choose between the bandits or the militia,” she said. “The error is not which one you choose. It’s in the lack of options as a citizen in a state where the police don’t do what they are supposed to.”

An officer watches over the Vigario Geral favela in Rio on December 15, 2005. Police stormed the slum after drug traffickers from a nearby rival slum allegedly kidnapped eight young people. It was the latest episode in a 20-year feud between the two neighborhoods, which are run by opposing drug gangs. Shootouts between gang members and the police are common, and many innocent bystanders have fallen victim to wayward bullets. The homicide rate of Rio rivals that of some war zones.

For 25 years, politicians have said that they don’t have enough funding, manpower, or weapons to solve the problems of the favelas. They see it as an ongoing war, and residents say the police use this label as justification to torture and kill whomever they want. “The policemen’s salaries are humiliating and absolutely insufficient,” says Luis Soares, a former Rio de Janeiro state assistant secretary of security. “This has resulted in a large number of police working on their off days to provide private, informal, and illegal security services.” So far, the militias have made untold millions from this practice.


According to a report by the NGO Global Justice, last year police in Rio “officially” executed 1,300 people, mostly blacks with no known ties to drug gangs. The common practice is to shoot them in the back at close range, execution-style. Soares says militias cycle shifts of as many as 30 uniformed men toting machine guns and two-way radios who circulate throughout the community looking for trouble. They register residents, issue receipts for their services, and hold neighborhood meetings. “Militias seem to have a more modern style of domination,” he says, “but we know that they aren’t that different from the drug gangs. This becomes obvious in the excessive ways they dole out ‘punishments’ using methods such as rape.”

Today, things are more mixed up than ever, and no one knows the difference between the good guys and the bad—some militias are no doubt working in collusion with the traffickers, and everyone’s fighting one another. It’s gotten to the point where you can’t walk into a favela without getting permission from a group of heavily armed, nervous teenagers who are so hopped up on blow and Red Bull it wouldn’t take a lot for them to accidentally squeeze the trigger.

Marcelo Freixo is a state senator who led a recent parliamentary investigation of the militias. He has been subsequently marked for death and has good reason to fear for his safety. Militias routinely torture and assassinate politicians, journalists, and other officials who attempt to investigate their organizations. He agreed to a phone interview but answered my questions in safe, bureaucratic language. I asked him why no one has been able to control the militia problem. “The biggest obstacle is a lack of will on the part of the government,” Freixo said. “They are completely ingrained in certain sectors of Rio’s political culture. When there are already ex–police chiefs, city councilmen, and even federal congressmen involved, it makes it very hard to eradicate them.”

When I asked him whether he was afraid of being assassinated, he said, “I am a public servant trying to represent my electorate the best I can in Rio de Janeiro. You have to expect the threats.”

Last year, three journalists from the

O Dia

newspaper were reporting on the militia controlling the favela of Batan, which is on the west side of Rio. They were kidnapped and tortured for seven hours by uniformed police officers and plainclothes militia leaders. In addition to the beatings, they were forced to play Russian roulette and were suffocated with plastic bags over their heads. Reporting on the militia phenomenon since then has mostly been limited to stories on the arrests of various dirty public officials due to federal police stings. These groups make it virtually impossible to report on the situation, and few outsiders know what’s really happening in the favelas. Corruption will certainly continue to grow unchecked until everyone’s either rich or dead. The former won’t be happening any time soon for the residents of the favelas, so all that’s left for them to do is to go to bed every night with hopes that a stray bullet won’t find its way into their sleeping bodies.