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Brazil's drug gangs are prepared to go to war with Bolsonaro

“He’s going to take the world into an urban war.”

Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, fulfilled a campaign promise to tackle the country’s epidemic of violence — by signing a temporary decree Tuesday that makes it easier for Brazilians to buy guns.

“I signed this decree, created by many upstanding people, so that at this first moment, upstanding citizens can have peace inside their homes,” Bolsonaro said at the signing ceremony in the country’s capital, Brasília.


Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, was sworn in as president on Jan. 1, after rising in popularity last year on a fiercely nationalist, hardline law-and-order platform to reduce the country's murder rate — which ranks the highest in the world — and the booming illegal drug trade that fuels it.

But his plan to give "guns to good people," is likely to backfire. Gang members responsible for some of the worst violence in Brazil’s major cities told VICE News that the president's new policy of fighting crime by putting more guns on the streets will only lead to more bloodshed. So too will his plans to ramp up the military’s role in the drug war by giving security forces more power to shoot and kill armed criminals.


An officer with Brazils Federal Highway Patrol or PRF, search Brazils border with Paraguay in search of illegal drugs and guns. This porous borer is the largest source of illegal drugs that are smuggled in to Brazil every. (VICE News/Daniel Vergara)

Tensions are already running high.

On the main highway leading into Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s Federal Highway Patrol(PRF) say they’re confiscating record numbers of illegal drugs. The officers patrolling the road seized 18 tons of drugs last year — more than a 300-percent increase from the previous year.

“It's a traditional route for drug traffickers — not just for drugs, but also heavy arms,” Alcino Galvao da Silva, Unit Leader of the Federal Highway Patrol, told VICE News. “Machine guns, bullets, marijuana, and cocaine… It has grown quite a bit, especially in Rio de Janeiro.”


An officer with the Federal Highway Patrol or PRF holds one kilo of cocaine paste that was hidden inside a car traveling into Rio de Janeiro. The horse image stamped on the package is the symbol of the cocaine producer, which PRF officials say most likely was produced in Paraguay. (VICE News/Daniel Vergara)

The gangs at the center of the trade have shown no sign of slowing down.

“Fear? We don't have fear. That's what we're here for. To kill and die. We'll die, but die fighting. It's our war motto: Die fighting,” said a member of the Third Command, one of Brazil’s most powerful crime organizations, who asked to go by “Johnny,” out of fear of retaliation for speaking to the press.“


Johnny” has been dealing drugs for the Third Command since he was 16 years-old. Now, 28, he manages all the drugs corners in the neighborhood and isn’t afraid to defend them by force.

Even if that means going to war with Brazil's new president.

“He’s going to take the world into an urban war,” Johnny said. “Instead of us killing the Red Command [a rival gang] we’re going to go after the guy who is in the police who listened to one of Bolsonaro's orders.”


Gun traffickers who go by the name “Noel” (left) and “Joia” (right). They smuggle guns from Paraguay into favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Since President Bolsonaro took office they say their profits from illegal gun sales are increasing. (VICE News/Daniel Vergara)


A drug corner controlled by the Third Command drug gang inside a favela or slum, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (VICE News/Daniel Vergara)


Drug dealers with the Third Command drug gang stand guard over the favela the gang controls on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (VICE News/Daniel Vergara)