Getting to Know the Drug Lord Who Controlled Rio’s Biggest Slum

Being one of the most powerful drug lords in the country is "a much tougher job than people imagine," according to Misha Glenny's new book.

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Nov 15 2015, 2:30pm

Rocinha. Photo via Flickr user Alex

I was 22 when I randomly decided to go backpacking in Brazil.

At the time, I was bored as hell of life in overly sanitized Vancouver. Brazil turned out to be an excellent antidote, and I found myself completely charmed by its natural beauty as well as its overwhelming chaos and suffocating crowds.

Rio, in particular, I never wanted to leave. The first thing everybody notices about Rio is how stunningly beautiful it is, which is true, but the most interesting thing about it is its paradoxes. Far from glamorous, the most famous beach, Copacabana, is more or less a red light district where it's not uncommon to see gaggles of underage girls surrounding much older men. Meanwhile, nestled on a hillside in between two of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, Gavea and São Conrado, sits Rocinha, the largest favela, or slum, in the country in which 120,000 people live in row upon row of corrugated tin shacks.

Rocinha, like most of Rio's hundreds of favelas, was for a long time controlled exclusively by drug traffickers who bribed local police forces to keep them at bay. I visited Rocinha a couple times during my stay, first on a guided tour, which was uncomfortable because it felt a little bit like poverty porn, though I was told the locals appreciate it because it helps boost their economy. Later, I went back with one of its residents who worked as a security guard at the hostel where I was staying. We danced all night at a funk music party and rode scooters up part of the mountain in torrential rain; it ended up being my favorite memory of the entire trip. A lot of people had warned me about the danger of favelas, but, maybe naively, I didn't feel unsafe, despite seeing young men rolling past with what looked like uzis strapped to their chests. Mainly that's because everyone I encountered was exceedingly warm. It struck me that favelas are far more complex than their limited reputations as places where violence and drugs run rampant might suggest.

That's the spirit in which UK journalist and author Misha Glenny began researching his latest book, Nemesis: One Man and The Battle For Rio. It follows the true story of Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, a.k.a. Nem, the unlikely kingpin who ran Rocinha and the trade of its main export: cocaine. Glenny was in Brazil in November 2011 when Nem—the most wanted man in the country—was arrested in a very dramatic fashion. Upon reading interviews with him, Glenny began to suspect Nem was far more than the typical gangster. In time, Glenny discovered Nem was just a guy trying to take care of his family when he stumbled upon an unexpected path to power. While writing the book, which ended up illuminating a unique intersection of drugs, politics, poverty, and family, Glenny moved to Rocinha and conducted several jailhouse interviews with Nem. VICE met the author in Toronto to ask him more about the book and life in the favela as a middle-aged white dude.

Nem with his family. Photo courtesy House of Anansi Press

VICE: What about Nem caught your attention?
Misha Glenny: Nem was arrested in November 2011, and I'd already read a couple of interviews he'd given to the Brazilian media before his arrest. The language he used, the sort of discourse was very, very different from that which most drug lords would use. It was intensely focused on the community of Rocinha and the need to provide for the community and that the drug trade was basically compensating for the absence of any state presence in the favela. And he felt it was his responsibility to replace the state.

What were your conversations with him like?
I realized very quickly that he'd been interviewed by dozens and dozens of people—police, judges, journalists, lawyers—and no one had ever asked him about his childhood. And his childhood and his experience of poverty and violence as a child but also his intense patriotism about Rocinha, was extraordinary. And [for him] it was also, "Here's someone who is interested in me beyond the coke trade." We did later talk about the coke trade extensively. And once we'd had that first interview, I thought, Fuck it, I've really got a story here.

You described him as having struggled with moral decisions.
How do you run a city of 120,000 people and its primary industry and you have 120 significantly armed young men under your control? How do you exercise power, what do you consider to be morally right and wrong, what do you consider to be operationally right and wrong? It's a much tougher job than people imagine. They imagine you just walk around and swagger and shoot people when you don't like them and pick up stack loads of cash cause you're shifting 60 percent of Rio's cocaine—and it just isn't like that. In the end, he wanted to give himself up, there's no question about it.

People in Rocinha. Photo via Flickr user Daytours4u

How did he direct his "hit men"?
He realized fairly soon into his reign that if you lower levels of violence and, in particular, if you lower the rate of homicide, your turnover goes up, and everyone's happy. So this was a pragmatic response he was making, it was a business decision, but it conformed with the way he wanted to run the place. He ordered fairly soon the guns be taken off the street, that they be positioned close to where the "smoke shops" [cocaine drop-offs] were but that the kind of habitual, casual patrols all over the favela stop.

What was his reputation like among the people of Rocinha?
They all said to me, "We'd have him back in a shot. He kept everything calm here, the economy was doing well, everyone knew their place, everyone felt secure."

What was it like living there and getting people to trust you?
It was hard. I was able to do that sort of malarkey in my 20s, in your mid-50s you've kind of grown used to your creature comforts and that sort of thing. It's tough living in a room the size of a prison cell with a rickety old bunk bed and a crappy old mattress and a plastic table and chair and that's it. It's hard when at 3 AM, the biblical downpour that's sweeping across the favela comes sweeping across your roof. And the dog shit and the shit that comes out when it rains because of the sewers, and the constant noise. So I didn't get a single night's sleep that I can think of when I was there. But people were respectful of the fact that I had gone to live there. One thing they get really pissed off about is people going in for a couple of days and writing authoritative pieces on what the life of the favela is like.

It must have been weird to see the juxtaposition between the rich areas and the favela.
That for me really is the jaw-dropping aspect to it all. You've literally got 15, 20 meters [50 feet] between an extremely fashionable condo on one hand, and on the other, the type of squalor that's as bad as anything you'll find in a Mumbai slum.

Wanted poster for Nem. Photo courtesy House of Anansi Press

Did you ever feel uncomfortable?
I had a few unsettling moments because I was determined to explore the favela beyond [the main strip]. I went deep in the favela. On four or five occasions I would do that and I came across young men with semi-automatic weapons in large numbers sitting around, and in wanders this gringo. So I did what any sensible person would do in that situation, which is I acted like a dumb gringo, which in many respects is what I was.

What did you talk about with them?
Once, I talked about the upcoming World Cup and the fact that they thought England's chances were completely zippo and Brazil was going to win. And the other occasion I was with a friend who knew the head of the gang and so we sat down and chatted and he was very affable, he was, extraordinarily, shot down three days later by the police.

You wrote about alcoholism in Nem's family, what types of addiction issues did you witness?
If you want to see crack addiction you go to other favelas, but my god, what you see is just hair raising. It's teenagers who are zombies, they all gather in various areas which are known as cracolândias, and these are places with teenage and sub-teenage crack addicts. And they're just sitting there—they don't know whether it's night or day, it's horrible to watch.

What do you think needs to change for life in favelas to improve?
The key thing favelas need in the mid to long term is better access to education, and they need to confront the issue of domestic violence. The reason domestic violence is so important is because exposure to domestic violence leads to the replication of violent behavior through the generations.

How do you think your book will be received by the Brazilian government?
They're not going to like it.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.

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