The Prudence of the Ruthless: Drug Traffickers Coordinating the Fight Against COVID-19 in the Favelas of Brazil

As COVID-19 spreads across the planet, leaders around the world try their best to mitigate the drastic human and social consequences of this pandemic. More than a billion people around the world are having to shelter in place and avoid social contact, world-class events have been canceled, and borders have been closed, showing that almost every nation is taking this situation with the seriousness it deserves. But there are exceptions.

Populists like US president Donald Trump or UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson briefly attempted to swim against the scientific current, which advised governments to take precautionary measures as soon as possible, but shortly realized the danger such action would entail. Only one democratically elected leader remains doubting the destructive power of the virus and is more concerned with the economic than with the social losses it will provoke: Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro.

On a speech to the country broadcasted in live television on the 24th of March, the Brazilian president attacked governors who decided to impose social distancing to prevent the then nationwide 1,891 cases to grow, called the virus a “little flu,” and demanded Brazilians to leave their houses and go back to work, ignoring opposite directives given by his own Minister of Health, based on the policies suggested by the World Health Organization. Today, despite the governors having kept the shelter-in-place orders, Brazil reached 271,628 cases and 17,971 deaths, while Bolsonaro still walks around on the streets, demanding businesses to open and inciting his mostly elderly supporters to protest against isolation. Nevertheless, while the official leader of one of the world’s largest democracies is not only ignoring the dangers of the pandemic but is directly causing the death of its people by spreading misinformation, a different kind of leadership is protecting its people: drug traffickers and armed militias.

In the city of Rio de Janeiro – the second biggest in the country – members of organized crime groups are the de facto rulers of the favelas, historically poor neighborhoods spread throughout the city’s hills; populated in total by more than 1.5 million Brazilians who don’t have access to public services and live in improvised houses with deficient infrastructure. The gangs ordered the inhabitants, amidst threats of physical violence in case of non-compliance, to stay at home and pay great attention to hygienic standards. Signs on the streets remind everyone to wash their hands, and letters from the gangs to the people shared through WhatsApp groups state that those who do not comply will “learn to respect each other.”

This cautious behavior comes first from the understanding of the danger that COVID-19 bears, but most importantly, from the notion that the favelas are incredibly susceptible to the spread of diseases. Their dependency on the normally already overcrowded public health system of Rio, the constant lack of running water to wash one’s hands, and the fact that whole families live in very small houses, make the usual rules of social distancing practiced with already limited results in the first world impossible to be followed. While the federal government manages to ignore this situation by looking the other way and refusing to believe in facts, the imminent threat of death leaves the favelas no choice but to act.

Favela da Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro

The fact that the poor Brazilians living in favelas have to trust drug traffickers and militias to play the role of the state and take the necessary measures shows, not only are they excluded from the provision of basic services, such as sanitation, safety and health, but from the Brazilian state and its democracy themselves.

In the favelas, it is organized crime who is efficient, not the state.

It is common knowledge that, despite the daily episodes of violence and their brutality, drug traffickers and armed militias enjoy, if not more, at least the same amount of support by the local population as the state itself does. Where and when the state fails, which is mostly everywhere and every day, it is them that will buy the medicine needed by a sick child, will help a starving family get some rice and beans, and pay for cooking gas. Political scientists worldwide know that effectiveness and efficiency are the prime sources of legitimacy for anyone in power. In the favelas, it is organized crime who is efficient, not the state.

Especially the young men, who’ve seen their families work hard every day and night for generations and are still barely be able to survive, look up to traffickers as a source of social mobility and prestige. They know it is not the morally right way to achieve what they want, but other options are so far-fetched, that reluctance makes little sense.

It is obvious to say that this is not an optimal scenario. Organized crime does not have a democratic mandate to better the lives of its people. It is wrong to say it has a people in the first place, as it is no sovereign state. Their motivation is selfish, and the good they do is only insofar as to help themselves have the necessary stability in the region to prosper individually. The question must then be turned towards the state: why does it allow organized crime to play its role better than itself?

What matters primarily is the safety of the elites. The rest is not a priority. 

Part of the answer is indeed incapacity. Brazil is no developed nation, and especially the city and state of Rio de Janeiro grasp with lack of funding, corrupt and inefficient structures and problems too big to be handled quickly. But one can’t deny that another large reason is unwillingness.  For the powerful part of the population, comfortably living in apartments near the stunningly beautiful beaches of Ipanema or Copacabana, the reality of those living in strikingly contrasting conditions to theirs is perceived only when they are robbed or kidnapped. For them, it is not a crisis of democracy or human rights; it is a crisis of security. And so has the answer of the state been.

The policy put in place by the political elites is to send the police every day into the favelas to fight against heavily armed traffickers and militias with the only goal of not letting them spread to other neighbourhoods. The consequence is that the police in Rio is the one that kills the most and dies the most in the world, fighting for decades now an endless war that, as long as it keeps itself constrained to the hills of the favelas, will be seen as successful and will not come to an end. Neither the fact that the underlying structural problems are not being solved nor the thousands of deaths this policy causes will bring an end to it. What matters primarily is the safety of the elites. The rest is not a priority.

“This is an unfair society, and we guarantee this injustice.”

In 1997, in a moment of rare sincerity for someone in his position, as part of an interview to the acclaimed documentary “News from a Personal War,” the then chief of the civilian police force of Rio de Janeiro, Hélio Luz, made things as clear as possible: “The police was created to be violent and corrupt because it was made to protect the state and the elite. I practice law enforcement to protect and serve the status quo, to keep the favela under control. […] It is a political police. This is an unfair society, and we guarantee this injustice. The excluded stays under control, and he’ll pay if he tries to go against it.” Not much later in that same year, Mr. Luz was fired by the governor. 

rocinha defesa segurança violência

More than 20 years after this interview, one can’t say the situation has gotten better. On the contrary, the rise in power of the armed militias, which are, to an extent, rooted inside Rio’s political system, having close connections even with President Bolsonaro’s family itself, make the situation only even more complicated. For the inhabitants of the favelas to come out of this tricky situation of powerlessness, they need first to be recognized as a political force inside of Rio’s political landscape. It won’t be an easy task, to say the least. One of the few city council members who represented the people of the favelas, Marielle Franco, was brutally murdered in March of 2018. All evidence points towards a political killing committed by the militia, but, so far, little has been confirmed by the police about who ordered the crime.

Marielle Franco speaking in a political rally for the 2016 municipal elections in Rio.

In this bitter reality of oppression and exclusion, the hope must be for more and more Marielle’s to arise, organize, and fight for political representation. Some great examples of community political engagement can be seen in many favelas, not only in Rio but throughout the country. The fight will be hard, and this pandemic only came to shed new light into the depth of the problems, but the will to fight might have just gained new fuel.

In what might be mere wishful thinking, COVID-19 could be seen, however, as more than just new fuel to an old fight. Moments of unforeseeable crises, such as this pandemic we are all going through, bring with them countless amounts of pain and desperation that are as unequally distributed as everything else in our societies nowadays. One of the very few positive sides of them are, nevertheless, that they might make us look at our lives from different perspectives, making us realize new things, learn, and decide to be a new element of change, so that things can be different in future crises. The absurd scenario that was described in this text will definitely make many citizens from the favelas and from Rio’s elites see this situation differently. It will spark on one side anger, and on the other side guilt, which would hopefully be channeled into political change, coming from both sides.