Brazil’s divided society: a legend of good and bad gangsters

A few weeks before the World Cup kicked off, reports began to appear in the international press about violent riots in the cities of Brazil, especially in Rio de Janeiro - events at one and the same time bizarrely normal and something new. 

Kathrin Zeller
1 July 2014

Police special forces occupy the complex of favelas 'Vila Kennedy' in the west of Rio de Janeiro, to install the 38th police pacifying unit in the city. Gustavo Oliveira/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The German journal Der Spiegel published one article, “Death and the Games”, while another German publication, this time FAZ, offered, “Keeping company with chaotic people”. In the meantime, even optimists doubted whether Brazilians´ impressive improvisatory skills would be sufficient to compensate for their lack of planning. Almost daily, new reports of riots and shootings reached the media. For a long time the peripheries of the city were the venues for that violence.

But all that changed at the end of April. In the middle of Copacabana, where, at that point, the largest density of international journalists across the country might be found, Brazil once again delivered the perfect backdrop for international reporting in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. Gunfire and pistol shots rang from the hill Pavão-Pavãozinho, followed shortly after by burning barricades and complete chaos. A young dancer had been found dead and that incident had sparked protests from angry residents.

A bizarre story of everyday life

In many parts of the city, an urban war has been taken place for decades. Since the 1970s, the majority of the favelas have been occupied by one or other of the various drug gangs in the city. The oldest of these cartels is the so-called Red Command (Comando Vermelho) which has its origin in the era of the military dictatorship of Brazil. At that time, political prisoners were imprisoned together with common criminals. Much free time and congested space in prison led to the ideas of imprisoned left-winged intellectuals mixing with those of ordinary prisoners. So the military junta became the obstetrician for a kind of Robin-Hood-Cartel, which, barely released, took command of the numerous favelas of the city. The vacuum in social policy left by the state was filled by the Red Command with drug-funded substitute care.

Tales of "the good gangster" who supplied the poor population of his very own favela with medicine or gas for cooking are still told and even sold as literary bestsellers. Where the state is still not present, the function of the good gangster continues, not because of faith in a Marxist model, but to keep the inhabitants of the miniature dictatorships in the favelas content. So the chief of the hill ensures order by punishing robberies or other acts of violence with draconian penalties, even execution. Financial loss due to theft, illness or natural disaster are often reimbursed from multi-million dollar drug budgets, no matter if the person is involved in the drug trade or not. It is repaid thanks to loyalty, turning a blind eye and with respect for the rules that are dictated by the local gang.

Until a few years ago, heavy clashes between the cartels and the police were a daily occurrence. This led to about 1,000 deaths per year, solely due to the collateral damage from bullets. Bright red flashes of machine gunfire could always be seen in the night sky when the bosses of the hill celebrated their festivals: shots at Christmas, or on birthdays, or any of an infinite number of days commemorating the death of a fallen "warrior" were just as normal as groups of teenagers that went armed with rifles in broad daylight, through the streets and alleys of the favelas, determining the rules of everyday life for the inhabitants.

At the height of the cartels’ influence, identified by their different colours, a wrong T-shirt could already be fatal. Even today, uninvolved residents of the favelas are risking their lives just by entering areas which are in the hands of one of the opposing groups.

For decades the society remained in this bizarre state of normalcy, to which the rich elite adapted via their bulletproof cars, while the residents of the slums had to collaborate with the cartels. The police presence was limited to occasional operations under war-like conditions, only to leave the scene a few hours later; until December 2008. 

Success story UPP

The change came in the shape of a hundred policemen who one morning, heavily armed and supported by the masked SWAT BOPE and numerous helicopters, stormed a favela, this time to stay.

The pacification unit UPP (Unidades da Polícia Pacifica Dora) "Santa Marta" in southern Rio brought with them a paradigm shift. First regarded with amazement, the belief in a possible different normality grew stronger with every occupied favela. Murder rates declined drastically in the pacified areas. And the people who found themselves without the questionable ‘care’ of drug bosses, also became aware of a new quality of life. Bizarre side effects, such as the possibility of romantic relationships between people of formerly hostile favelas, regularly appeared in the media. Soon, numerous hotels and restaurants opened up on the steep hills of Copacabana and elsewhere. With the exit of the drug lords’ security guards, a barrier which had for so many years separated the population of the favelas and the people of the nearby residential complexes, had also disappeared.

Convinced of their success, the project was expanded constantly. The demand for police officers and more infrastructure increased enormously and is one of the reasons why the project began to develop an inflationary characteristic. Soon doubt set in, thanks to corruption scandals within the units and violent attacks by the police on the inhabitants of the favelas. In addition, the mass migration of criminals had only secured a spike in violence in other parts of the city and the state. However, an official request to the then Governor of Rio, Sergio Cabral, not to occupy new areas but to secure first the control of the situation until further notice, was rejected.

But the UPPs themselves were becoming more and more concerned. Attacks on police outposts or the police patrols were rising rapidly. First interpreted as natural resistance and acts of desperation on the part of the cartels, the increasing clashes have now begun to look more like a loss of control by the police. 

Security policy at its zenith

Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by without reports of injured policemen. Often young and inexperienced, trained with a crash-course and on a salary of less than 600 Euros, the new officers of the UPP often work under lousy conditions: bad food, night shifts in small containers they use as outposts, always in the crosshairs of the drug gangs, which now, sometimes more, sometimes less obscured, but still armed, monitor the hills.

Everyday life as a police officer in an urban war which often claims the lives of colleagues, and is hardly acknowledged by society, is responsible for the strange mentality of the police in Rio. Barely legal in its brutality and yet somehow committed to sacrificing their own integrity for the protection of the citizens, the police celebrate every dead gangster. Photos of police officers posing with their victims in various conditions, end up in newspapers and social media. Here the reactions are often accompanied by scorn. Commentaries like “One less!” or “Bullets for them!” are the harmless type. Reports of injured or dead policeman are followed by announcements like “We only go to the funeral of our friend after we have put the enemy six feet under”. Word on the street is that the exchange rate is one to four: one dead policeman is avenged with four dead gangsters. And the war is personal. Since January, 31 police officers in the state of Rio de Janeiro have lost their lives, about six per week were injured. According to the official statistics of the Department of Homeland Security (ISP), 153 people were killed during police operations between January and March.

The situation is exacerbated by an evil that pervades the entire Brazilian society. Corruption is a bridge between the two camps, which negotiate short-term peace agreements with money and weapons. Numerous incidents of monthly payments by the drug lords to units of the UPP were leaked last year. Before the occupation of several hills in the centre of Rio, the police had even helped the drug lords with the removal of their weapons.

At the same time, a criminal parallel structure inside the police, the so-called militia, seems to profit from the same vacuum. Already in the 1990s, police officers and fire fighters bolstered up the lack of public structure with private security services. However, within a short time, a brutal mafia developed. In the spirit of the masked avenger, one of the most famous leaders is known as “Batman”. After numerous graffiti tags of the superheroes appeared on the Pavão-Pavãozinho hill, local media speculated that gangs were also active there. Even today, the militia is deeply interwoven within the structure of the police and it is possible that, due to the spread of the UPPs, it might gain new territories.

The judicial system is also part of the problem of Pavão-Pavãozinho in Copacabana. A few months ago the former “chief of the hill” returned and since then, small conflicts are part of everyday life. On the first day of semi-open imprisonment the crime boss, well-known by the nickname "Pitbull", had fled. Nevertheless, according to media reports a court confirmed his right to semi-open prison. To suspect incompetence as a reason would be the lesser evil here.

Meanwhile, the police have been engaged in several gun fights, but not able to arrest the fugitive, even though some of Rio’s police forces are now very well equipped and trained. In the past, the special task force, BOPE, has trained squads in the US, where a drone is also used. Where priorities are set, the means to achieve selective goals do exist.

The risk of major conflict was probably underestimated in this case, or even tolerated due to insider vested interest. Giving way to a scene with the exact content that the international media can most easily sell, is definitely a further twist in the security politics of Rio de Janeiro. Previously limited to the peripheries, the government was still trying to speak of isolated gunfire in particularly difficult areas. To have such conflicts in the centre of the city is a novelty that reveals the true seriousness of the situation. 

A population helps itself

In everyday life, the police have given the population the impression that they have a bigger interest in their personal war than in the protection of society. After a robbery, besides the stolen goods, often the files also disappear from battalion filing cabinets. Police on duty in the squares of the city frequently respond to calls for help with little more than the tired comment that they do not have permission to leave the square.

Left to its own devices between warring groups, the population has meanwhile begun to mount its own defence against the increasing number of robberies. Cases in which thieves, caught by civilians, were tied naked to streetposts or others in which only the intervention of the police saved them from death by beating, have increasingly filled the media. However, death by beating is not uncommon in Brazil and also happens in the case of drivers who cause accidents or minorities, such as transsexuals. In May 2014, an angry mob killed a woman in the state of São Paulo only because of a rumour on Facebook and other social media that implied that she was involved in black magic.

Brazilian experts called upon to explain the reaction assume that the citizens felt let down by the judicial system. However, another factor probably plays an additional role. Applause for police violence echoes through social media, through barbecues with friends and family, or political speeches. The threshold in this society for the use of force is extremely low and is a symptom of the trauma of decades of urban war and impunity.

While it is not uncommon in Europe that 20-year-olds have never seen a dead man, the inhabitants of the favelas are facing a constant conflict which takes place not just in front of their door. In the form of ricochets, violent drug dealers or policemen, the war is penetrating their homes and claiming victims amongst their family and friends. The residents of the richer districts at the same time are constantly exposed to the threat of attacks or kidnappings, and so barricade themselves behind the walls of their apartment complexes. Those who are not directly affected by violence, at least knows someone who is. A constant feeling of insecurity drives people to constantly monitor the movements of others or start to panic when black children are running through the streets. This is supported by a sensationalist press that shows every day the most bizarre cases. 

“A good gangster is a dead gangster”- divided society

As early as in school, social classes in Brazil grow up separated between public and private schools. Social mobility is low, class affiliation still perpetuates itself, even though millions of people have advanced into a new middle class.

Nevertheless, prejudice and a lack of social solidarity often legitimize demands for short-term relief of symptoms rather than acting together for long-term reforms. Also in the case of the dead dancer, judgments were made quickly. Years of experience have taught the inhabitants of the favelas what the police is capable of. Statistics of the disappeared, also in the UPP, give reason enough to believe that another innocent young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time became yet another number in the enormous statistics of young black men who fall victim to police brutality.

In the first quarter of 2014, 1,758 people disappeared in the state of Rio. While this statistic doesn´t include those people who reappear later, another number is less ambiguous: in the same period 185 corpses and 8 sets of remains in the form of bones were found. Where victims are buried, burned, dumped in trash cans or the Bay of Guanabara, or simply carted from one hill to another, statistics degenerate into approximate values. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the favelas find themselves inside a new structure of the UPP, which degenerates more and more into a mere facade.

The rules of the favelas are now set by two parties. A simple conversation with police officers can be followed by death threats or execution from the cartels; in the same way, suspicion of connections to the drug dealers may result in threats by the police. The structures of the past that offered a bit of security in their own way, have given way to a chaotic state in which the victims are once again the residents of the favelas.

“Human rights for rightful humans” reverberates from the other side of the chasm that has separated Brazilian society for a long time. Those who act wrongly, in the opinion of many Brazilians, lose their claim on human rights. And there is also no mercy for children and teenagers who are used by the cartels because they have not yet reached the age of criminal responsibility. This feeling is caused by the constant sense of threat among those who have any property. Almost nobody is held accountable for crime; the detection rate for homicide is below five per cent. An enormous degree of frustration results in hatred directed against an entire segment of the population that, for the most part, is not involved in the criminal activities of the cartels.

The resentment of the traditional middle and upper classes manifests itself in a general suspicion against the inhabitants of the hills. A template that separates good and evil is practically impossible to sustain where friendships or family bonds between workers and drug gangs blur the boundaries. The public discourse in Brazil is still reproducing antagonistic stereotypes, and this also was to be seen on the hill in Copacabana.

As soon as the news of the death of the young dancer reached the press, hundreds immediately started to comment in the social media. Some assure others that the dancer was another victim of the brutal police. Others state that the 26-year-old had connections to the local cartel. Few demand that the police should first look into the case and provide the facts on what has actually happened. Hardly anyone asks about the actual legitimacy of the killing of a human being. The Gangster criterion alone decides. “A good gangster is a dead gangster”, is the almost uniform attitude.

It is said to be better if the bad elements of society were eliminated outright rather than be banged up in jail, only to be released on probation after a brief period. Better one of them than another dead policeman. In general: one less to worry about. Quoted for many years, the sentence, “A good gangster is a dead gangster” has served several times as a campaign slogan. Congressman Sivuca, for example, got an enormous response. “Brave” is he, who says what others just think.

Safety during the World Cup

Regardless of the outcome of the UPP project, one conclusion stands out: the certainty that the peace project is possible. The protests in June last year were a clear signal that something is stirring in Brazilian society. Unfulfilled promises about the country`s modernization as part of the preparation for the World Cup, mismanagement, corruption and state negligence were all reasons why the otherwise harmony-seeking Brazilians took their anger to the streets.


A march was held in Copacabana against police deaths that have occurred in many of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Some demonstrators also held up anti-FIFA banners. 23 June 2014. Osvaldo Ribeiro Filho/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The transformation of a society, whose middle class is on the increase, naturally brings frictions with it. The search for a new model of society raises questions about the role of the elites and the new middle class, which is just learning to articulate its demands in a constructive way. Mostly students took part in the massive protests that brought millions onto the streets. But other parts of the population have now also learned to take advantage of the world's press whose attention is now drawn to Brazil during the World Cup, and to use it as a megaphone for their own purposes. It is therefore likely, that there will also be protests during the World Cup.

A second kind of turmoil is currently being gestated in anticipation of the upcoming elections in October. Some potential candidates for the office of Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro are rumoured to be encouraging protests and attacks on the UPP to destabilize the current government. The anarchist Black Blocs network also announced that it would cause chaos during the World Cup.

With all this going on, the safety of the fans is probably less under threat than the country's image. A huge range of military formations will support the police and protect the city from attack by the drug cartels, as well as protests by its own people. It is highly unlikely that these scenes will repeat themselves in Copacabana. Also Pitbull, on top of the hill of Pavão-Pavãozinho is hardly able to cause trouble under the watchful eye of the military. When in doubt, Special Forces such as the BOPE, which are trained to take drastic measures - sometimes using questionable methods - are standing by. Also, agreements between the police and the cartels are rumoured to have been used to create peace in the city on short notice. 


A moment of anxiety always offers the possibility of realignment. An evaluation of the project, from both the security perspective, and in terms of the non-intensive investment policies in education and social protection could ensure the survival of the UPP. The first step has been completed with the current society-wide discussion. The conclusions drawn from this discontent will ultimately decide what development path the Brazil of tomorrow will take.

Dialogue and solidarity between the classes would be foundation for a social consensus, rather than remaining stuck in a debate about good or bad gangsters. Both the residents of the favelas, as well as the middle and upper class can take their share of responsibility. Certainly, the means to fight against the drug lords as inhabitants of the favelas are very limited. And also sociological barriers due to trauma, lack of foresight due to the poor education and other factors inhibit the abilities of the poor. Nevertheless, factors such as the glorification of drug dealers or neglect of education perpetuate the favela’s position on the periphery of society. Meanwhile, the flourishing drug trade, which can be sourced, to a large extent, to the consumption of exactly the same upper middle and upper class who believe themselves to be victims of drug cartels, continues. This completes the circle. The "cocaine-service" of Pavão-Pavãozinho is delivered for free to your home by motorbike taxi. Rumour has it, that the deceased dancer also had one of those.

Whether hosting the World Cup can ultimately be seen as a success in the field of public safety, depends on which standard is applied. Should the sole criterion be the public peace during the event, then perhaps there is still some hope for success.

Nevertheless, the image of the country has already suffered damage from the preliminary reports. Instead of dispelling the traditional stereotypes of a country torn between soccer, samba and violence, Brazil provides even more substance for this image. The biggest opportunity to date for the UPP project to reconcile both the city and various parts of society seems to remain elusive.


Thanks go to Maik Ludewig for translation from the German: and Nicholas Ottersbach for copyediting. This article also available in German was originally published in the Brazil office publication of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

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