Rodrigo*, 28, is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and works as an ‘airplane’ delivering coke and weed sourced from the favela to middle-class customers elsewhere in the city. Away from the glamorous beaches and Christ statue, the slums of Brazil’s postcard city are in a constant state of war between drug trafficking factions like Red Command (CV), Amigos dos Amigos (ADA), and Third Command, as well as police and vigilante militias made up of rogue officers. Rodrigo works for Red Command near the neighborhood of Tijuca.
Hey, you around?
Yeah I’m here bro but when are you gonna learn fucking Portuguese?
Sorry. What do you sell and where?
I don’t actually sell, I make deliveries. I’m an airplane, which means you see me or give me a call, hand me the money, then I’ll go get the stuff from my morro ["hill," synonymous with "favela" in Rio]. We’ve got all the kinds of drugs you have in Europe.
I can get you coke bags for 30, 40, or 50 reais [40 reais is around $10], weed, crack, ecstasy. But the weed we have in Brazil is crap. Most of it comes from Paraguay. For friends I have one price, for unknown customers another. I make about 10-15 reals [$2.50-3.60] commission each time.
How long have you been in the game and how did you get into it?
Selling drugs in the morro is like a culture. I was born seeing this culture, it’s not unusual for me. My granddad sold drugs in the morro, my uncle, my mother, all my family. My mama shot three people and went to jail. She knew Fernandinho Beira-Mar [aka Seaside Freddy, the Red Command leader who organized a guns-for-drugs deal with Colombia’s FARC rebels]. But until I was 22, I never touched anything. Then my friends down in Tijuca [a mainly white, tree-lined, middle class neighborhood in Rio] said, “Can you get us something? We’ll pay you money for it.”
A lot of people are scared if they come to the favela they’ll get robbed, and sometimes they do. There’s another reason. If you want to go in the favela, fine, that’s your problem, but if you’re coming out… a middle-class white boy like you coming out of the favela when he’s not from here? For the police there’s only one answer: you’re here to buy drugs! Why do you think you pay me to take these flights?
We have a lot of social problems in the favela, so poor black people like me, we’re almost invited to do this job. But I’ve never thought of what I’m doing as a crime.
"Bolsonaro and his pal, the new governor of Rio, declared war on drugs and now the police are going round shooting people from helicopters."
What’s it like in the favela?
I love living here. It’s wonderful: Everybody knows everybody, respects everybody, even the bandits. You just have to know not to make shit—if you break the rules, you get punished. You can’t steal or shoot here without permission, or you face the consequences. Sometimes a shot through the hand or the foot.
My friend Antonio works for the same gang at a different smoke shop, and we compete with each other. It’s a franchise, like McDonald’s. You’ve got 3-4 McDonald’s in the same hood but they’re owned by different guys.
What do you do when you’re not "flying"?
In the day I shine shoes for the rich gringos on Copacabana. At night, that’s when I start making my flights.
What do you think about rich people, sitting in their houses, while you’re risking your life and your freedom helping them get high?
I get all kinds of customers. Some of them really I find very, very revolting. They talk down to me, and talk like money is the most important thing in the world. I feel like kind of an anarchist, I wanna burn it all down! But others are my friends. One’s a middle-aged drama teacher. Another one’s a 70-year-old guy who’s never touched a beer in his life but we always smoke weed together.
Have you ever had any trouble with the cops?
Ah, the cops! Once they stopped us and I had to show them I was gay and the customer was my boyfriend. They’ve taken me down to the station several times but never do anything. This is Rio, you’ve only got to ask them how much they want! How much you pay depends how much you have but if you’ve only got one baggie they’ll let you go for 300-500 reals [$70-$120]. Then after a few of those bookings most of the police are already friendly and even ask me to buy for them!
There’s a new president, Bolsonaro, and his pal, the new governor [of Rio], Wilson Witzel, who declared war on drugs and now [the police] are going round shooting people from helicopters. But if you want to catch the real criminals you have to go to Ipanema or Leblon [the rich beachside neighborhoods].
How about other gangs?
There’s some areas I won’t go, for example Morro dos Macacos, because it’s controlled by another group. There’s two main cartels in Rio: Third Command and Red Command, and the milicia is just another faction. You won’t go to those areas unless you want serious fucking health problems.
ADA is another group but they’re going down. They’re only got three communities left across the whole of Rio. But I heard they’re paying the milicia to cause problems for us.
Sounds tough. How long do you see yourself doing this? Do you wanna retire or get another job?
My wife’s six months pregnant now, soon she’s gonna have our baby son. All I want is a stable job, then I can look after my wife and son.
Once when I was at the station I saw a cop who knew me. The first time he was getting all in my face but this time he asked me, “Why don’t you do something else in your life? What can you do?” I told him I can draw. I like to draw people, landscapes. “OK, show me,” he said, and he got me a pencil, paper, and told me to draw the figure. He took a look at it and said, “It’s OK, you have time. You can practice.”
* Interview was conducted in person at a favela in Rio’s North Zone and names have been changed.