Walking up the slopes of Rio's Rocinha favela with Raquel Santos de Oliveira is a slow process. Every few minutes, the 50-year-old is stopped and greeted by one of the favela's characters, from drunks to old ladies to gang members. "If you ask anyone here if I was a bandida [drug dealer], they will say yes," she says. "People still respect me."
Raquel was born in Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela, and for a brief time in its turbulent history was the most powerful person here. As the other half of drug boss Ednaldo de Souza, and a feared personality in her own right, Raquel took over as boss before a new leader was appointed after Ednaldo's death in 1988 during a bloody battle with police.
It remains highly unusual for a woman to play such a senior role in Rio's drug trade. Raquel's criminal heyday was around the time cocaine began to flood Rocinha, and Rio in general. Ednaldo, who was known as Naldo, was one of the first to adopt an HK rifle instead of smaller guns such as pistols and revolvers. The police would soon follow in this arms race, as the war between rival drug trafficking factions and police escalated ferociously into the 1990s.
Raquel's descent into cocaine addiction and growing disillusion with the extreme violence of her way of life made her eventually ask for an exit from the gang in the early 90s. The wish was granted. After years of therapy and treatment for her drug problem, she still lives in Rocinha and has written the semi-fictional book Number One about her love story with Naldo and her memories of that time.
VICE: Hi, Raquel. How did you meet Naldo?
Raquel Santos de Oliveira: We first met when we were still children; he was a year younger than me. He collected gambling debt money and used to bring money to my uncles. He used to stare at me. He was ugly, but he had those big, beautiful eyes. He started following me around, but he was in love with me like a boy is in love with his teacher, as I was older. I met him again when I was 15, and by that time he was armed and already like a boy from another world. We got together when I was 25 and coming out of a bad marriage with two small children.
What was life with him like?
He was bipolar and had bad depression. He would sleep in my arms, but he could be cruel to others. Drug traffickers go from heaven to hell in a short space of time. Within three years, everything he had had been destroyed. He was very anxious, but we lived for [the present], absolutely without fear. We were never sad—it was like an eternal celebration. Among ourselves, we smoked weed and had a laugh. It was a normal life, but it was all within that system.
Describe a typical day.
If I was at my mother's house, I would wake up and wait to hear the sound of his HK rifle, which he called Jovelina. It was a sign that he was awake, and I would go up to his place and take food for him. When it got dark, I would go to work with him at the boca de fumo [drug-selling point] or get to work cleaning guns. We had a beautiful house together, too, but everything was destroyed—photos, jewelry, clothes—in the police operation.
Was there a lot of competition from other women?
In those days, being a drug trafficker's woman was like being a socialite. Women used to put pins in condoms to try and get pregnant by one. Naldo's sisters were all prostitutes, so he hated that kind of woman. I wasn't threatened. We were like children discovering the world together—neither of us had had that kind of love before; it was supernatural.
What was your childhood in Rocinha like?
I grew up mainly on the streets. By 11, I was already carrying a .38 revolver. I used to spend a lot of time in the house where my mother worked as a maid for a rich family in Copacabana. The difference between that house, surrounded by beautiful things, and Rocinha was brutal. I remember looking out of the window at Rocinha, all the kites, noise, and mess, and I had no doubt at all that I wanted to get out of there. In the 1970s in Rocinha, a lot of people emigrated from the northeast of Brazil to work in construction. You had to queue in the middle of the night to get water, there was no electricity, and some people sold their children into prostitution to survive.
What happened when Naldo was killed?
I didn't want to live, but cocaine anesthetized me. Someone came to see me with a bag of 300 grams of cocaine, marijuana, and guns, and instructions from him to carry on his work. I went to get help, and that was when I started as boss.
What made you get out?
I saw someone get killed in front of me. It wasn't the last time I was involved in that life, but it was a decisive moment for me.
Why is organized crime so dominated by men in Rio?
In Rocinha, since the jogo do bicho ["the animal game," an illegal gambling racket that preceded the drug trade in Rocinha and other favelas as the main seat of power] crime was always dominated by men. It became like a brand, and the drug trade came from these roots too. Women were worthless in those days. They often got raped. Men would take a girl to a house, they would smoke weed, and 20 men would have her. Even today, some women exchange blowjobs for a wrap of coke. Women were treated like a piece of property you didn't care about. Even a car can be treated with care and affection, but women were just used and thrown away.
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How did you get their respect in a world like that?
I was beautiful, but I was aggressive. I grew up like a boy. I used to tie my hair up and hide it under a hat. I wasn't afraid of anything, and I'm still like that now. I was bad. People were scared of me. I had rules, such as no smoking weed in the boca de fumo [drug selling point]. It had to be that way. I had 19 men under my command.
What sparked your interest in writing?
My mother's boss in the house in Copacabana liked to read to me when I was small. I loved it, even though I didn't understand any of it. He had a lot of books and I always liked to read. It was a way to escape into another world.
What made you decide to write Number One?
My therapist suggested writing about my life as a way to deal with my emotions. It took me nearly two years. I cried a lot. When my editor suggested the chapter on my childhood, I went back on the coke and had a terrible night. Afterward, I spent two days in bed, but I wanted to demystify this life. I don't want it to be an apology, but I wanted to show that drug dealers here are people too, often coming from abject misery.
Why is it fiction and not a biography?
It's a novel based on real life because I couldn't do a biography. I'm not anyone—[I'm] just an ex-drug dealer.
How have things changed in Rocinha?
Since the police came in [an occupation known as the unit of police pacification has existed since 2011] there has been instability and a conflict of interests. Drug dealers have diversified into other products. It used to be like a big family; now, only a few are rich. It isn't as ostentatious.
What is your life like now?
Today, I'm happy; I've found peace. For a long time, I couldn't feel anything at all. I managed the boca de fumo just to pay for my own supply of coke. Now, I've been to university and written a book. I'm studying for a Masters and I want to get into politics and transform the drug treatment system in Rocinha.
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