The Sad Fate of the Vigilantes Protecting the Cars of Brazil

Brazil's rogue parking attendants, known as flanelinhas, have been making money under the table for years. But now, a new law could threaten their livelihood.
April 1, 2016, 4:48pm

Roberto Namarao, a flanelinha in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, helps a car parallel park in an open space. All photos by the author

On a bright Sunday afternoon, just a few blocks from the beach in Rio de Janeiro, a sweaty man popped out from nowhere, blocked the road, and waved me into a nearby parking spot. The man, 64-year-old Roberto Namarao, is one of Rio de Janeiro's rogue parking attendants, known as flanelinhas. Between odd jobs, he's been working this block for the past 20 years.

In Brazil, there are flanelinhas on nearly every block, essentially controlling all public, private, commercial, and residential street parking. Most will point you to an available spot, promise to watch over your vehicle while you're away, and of course, expect an obligatory tip—usually a couple Brazilian reals, or about $0.50. It happens more at night, when parking's tough to find.

Many argue that there is a fine line between paying a flanelinha gratuity to watch their car and a price not to damage it. In the past, flanelinhas have been accused of —and prosecuted for—extorting parkers, demanding exorbitant fees for free, public spaces, and slashing tires if motorists don't pay up.

But now, the reign of Brazilian flanelinhas may be coming to an end. An initiative called Smart Jobs Rio, implemented by the City and County of Rio de Janeiro, is slated to install 1,200 parking meters around the city to control the over 37,000 vacant stalls, most of which are currently managed by the flanelinhas. The parking meters will be electronic and cash-free, pre-paid at specific points of sale or via smartphone through an app, which will render parking attendants (both legal ones and the flanelinhas) unnecessary. The first wave of meters will go up within the next six months, while the rest will arrive within the next two years.

A flanelinha flagging down a car trying to park

Many look forward to the new system, which was originally suggested a few years ago. "They're thieves," said Jacomo Volak, a Rio de Janeiro taxi driver, of the flanelinhas. "They try to trick you and then make you pay, and that's illegal. They don't own the street—it's everyone's. I pay taxes, and they don't, but he tries to sell me back my own property?"

Volak also claims that corrupt police officers make arrangements with flanelinhas, letting them work an area for a cut, and reiterates the flanelinhas' reputation for extortion. "If an event is happening, they'll try and charge you [$3 or $4] and then tell you, 'If you don't pay, we'll key your car.'"

But for the flanelinhas, the meters couldn't come at a worse time. In the last few years, Brazil has slipped into a deep economic recession. Coupled with a current nationwide sweep on corruption known as the "Carwash," times are tough for the political and business elite, let alone a man from the favelas trying to make a living. The unemployment rate in Brazil is at 8.2 percent, with an increase of more than 135,000 people in February alone—the worst February since 2009. According to the Brazilian Statistics Bureau, more than 2 million Brazilians are unemployed at the moment, a 565,000 increase from this time last year.

Roberto Namarao, who's worked as a flanelinha for 20 years

Flanelinhas like Namarao, who has five children, rely on the job for income. On a good day, Namarao makes around $40; on a bad day, he'll make $17. (Brazilian's average monthly income is about $625.) He's been working here for 20 years, and claims he does more than just manage parking spaces: He watches over weekend beach goers' cars, keeps the sidewalks clean, and keeps an eye on any suspicious behavior going on around the neighborhood.

Related: How Giving Cash Directly to the Poor Paid Off in Brazil

Namarao doesn't work the block every day. A plumber by trade, he comes here on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, or on weekdays when he can't find plumbing jobs. He had a good gig plumbing for Olympic Games housing, but was laid off a few months ago. He collected welfare for a little while, but that's since dried up and now he's here more often. When the parking meters are installed, he's worried about how it'll affect his livelihood.

"In the beginning, there's gonna be a huge resistance," said a police officer on patrol in the posh neighborhood of Leblon, who declined to be quoted with his name. "I'll bet money that the flanelinhas will break the machines. Without a doubt."

Last year, the major Brazilian news agency Globo did a special report on flanelinhas in the nearby city of Belo Horizonte, uncovering that many earned as much as $1,300 a month—a substantial salary. For many, it's better than money they could get elsewhere, and it's all under-the-table.

Miss Fatima, a flanelinha at an open-air public parking lot near the base of Pedra da Gavea, told me she earns $25 a day, sometimes triple when there's a nearby event. The lot services two restaurants, a church, and overflow from a nearby events venue. There's a major police station just 50 yards behind the lot, but the police don't bother the flanelinhas.

Fatima says her father worked this lot for 46 years; she's been here for the last four. Before that, she was a beautician, but she says with the country's current economic situation, "no one's spending money on their nails like they were."

Fatima works long hours: typically from 6 AM to 6 PM on weekdays and 6 AM to 11 PM Friday through Sunday. She claims she doesn't ask anyone for a fee to park, but people customarily give her a tip. I asked her if she'd ever want to legitimize or work for a company, and she shook her head. "I'd rather work for ourselves than some kind of parking union, because we give them a cut—and for what?"

Luiz Ribeiro, working his territory in the Baixo Gavea neighborhood

Besides the money, some longtime flanelinhas insist they're more than just illegal parking attendants—they're guardians of the neighborhood.

"I started as a flanelinha, but I take care of the street and watch over this area—not take someone's money and run away like a lot of guys do," said 42-year-old Luiz Ribeiro, who works a residential side street in the Baixo Gavea neighborhood. "I've been here since 1996, and back then, it was messy. Everyone was running for whoever parked, so I had to fight my way in. But the people from the neighborhood saw that I was a good guy, and I gained their trust, so they hired me to look after their houses and cars."

Ribeiro claims he doesn't ask parkers for a tip and usually makes just $10 a night on parking, but is paid $325 a month by residents on the block who tip him to look after the street.

"If people want to tip me and give me a real or two, that's up to them, I won't ask," he explained. "I don't want that bad energy,"

I ask Ribeiro what would happen when the meters go up everywhere and the flanelinhas lost their blocks.

"If the flanelinhas lose their jobs, it could definitely increase crime because if guys need to bring food home for their families, they'll do it by any means necessary. They'll steal, go to drugs—anything to feed their families. Honestly, they'd probably turn to crime because crime is closer to their doorstep [in the favela] than their job as a flanelinha is."