<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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The Marginal Diplomat Explains "Organized Crime" in Brazil

Simone Bastos de Menezes tells a young journalist about the rise and fall of an Ethics Code of the narco


By Adriana Veloso
Part V of a series, reporting from Rio de Janeiro

April 4, 2003

The story of “the summer of the can” was not an urban myth.

It really happened along the coast near Rio de Janeiro, the cans floated to shore in Ilha Grande (Grand Isle), the same place where Maria Morena, daughter of prisoner William da Silva Lima, was conceived.

William, her father, is one of the last men held prisoner under the National Security Law that began in the first year of the military dictatorship, 1964.

I heard about “the summer of the can” the first time I was in Ilha Grande, when the closed maximum-security prison in Dois Rios (Two Rivers) was already in ruins and the village had become a ghost town. I must have been in front of the house where Maria Morena, a member of my own generation, had been conceived.


Simone Bastos
Photo D.R. 2003 Al Giordano
In the mid-1980s, Marina’s mother, the Baiana (a native of the Northeastern state of Bahia) Simone Bastos de Menezes, who had been a law student specializing in the prison system, ceased to be a member of the elite and became a paralegal – someone with great legal knowledge but without a license to practice law – and a fighter for human rights. This woman left law school in her final year to marry a prisoner who talked about Karl Marx.

The Brazilian penitentiary system, today, has 248,000 prisoners in 922 jails; the tip of the iceberg of the marginalization and social exclusion that is our present reality, whether it is seen distantly through the newspapers or in the daily life of the slums. The labor market of cocaine trafficking turned the street gangs into armies of war, what the media calls “organized crime.”

Simone disagrees: “The crime in the slums is not organized at all! This is a myth invented by the media, the same media that created the image of (famous alleged narco-trafficker) Escadinha, the son of a Chilean,” and also, certainly, that of the successful businessman Luis Fernando de la Costa (the real name of “Seaside Freddy,” Fernandinho Beira Mar) the current prisoner upon whom the Brazilian commercial media blames most of the narco-trafficking in this country.

The cariocas – Simone and others – saw the “the summer of the can” in 1986 as the turning point. She says that, “it was when drug trafficking became visible, because beforehand everybody just smoked marijuana.” For those who may not have heard about “the summer of the can,” imagine a boat smuggling Cannabis Indica, not the Cannabis Sativa popularized in the 1960s, that when police began chase, the crew through the cans into the sea; cans full of “that special buzz.” That is the origin of the legend. Everybody went crazy. The brothers headed out to sea in speedboats to fish for the spilled marijuana.

A year before that, in the summer of 1985, “people would go to the slums and ask for grass. And the answer was, ‘no, we only have cocaine.’ That was when cocaine had arrived in Rio de Janeiro,” remembers Simone. Prior to “the summer of the can,” the middle class couldn’t get marijuana downtown, and when they went to the slums the only thing they could get was cocaine.

That was the epoch when the cocaine market had established itself in most countries of Latin America and transformed the crime into an “organization.” The million dollars invested in producing, distributing, and commercializing, the final product – cocaine – found in the cariocas’ slums reached it’s resting place there where the populations lacks hope. The “narco” is a victim of a class exclusion even though its participants first tried to get organized in a horizontal manner with a concept of solidarity.

The Story of the Red Command


Four Hundred Against One: The story of the Red Command
By William da Silva Lima
William, the prisoner and husband of Simone, explained in his book titled “Four Hundred Against One: the History of the Red Command,” (1991, Iser-Vozes Press), the origin of the ethics code – the red identity – of the street gangs: criminal groups that work together to commit robbery. This process began in the maximum security prison on Ilha Grande during the years of the dictatorship, when incarcerated members of the guerrilla movement were mixed with the common prison population; those who were arrested for robbery under the old Law 157.

The coexistence behind bars of socialist youth who thought about revolution during the epoch of the military dictatorship of Emílio Garrastazu Médici and Arthur e Silva, together with those who practiced armed assault, who robbed banks, or just a wristwatch, or who walked in the street with a guitar – the vagrancy law that prohibited guitar-slinging only ended in 1988 with the new Constitution – created a social and political conscience among the “traditional” inmates. Those men discovered that they have rights, that they were still citizens.

The Brazilian prisoners had no law; they would kill each other over a pair of bluejeans, the prison guards would sell the bodies of the recently arrived inmates, and the prisoners were not segregated according to the severity of their crimes. Prior to 1984, when the penal reform laws were enacted, an arrested citizen could be sentenced to prison before being convicted of a crime. Before 1984, they would lock away the prisoner and throw away the key. But much has not yet changed: “The Brazilian prison system remains a producer of marginality,” stresses Simone.

She notes that the division of prisoners in cell blocks according to the gravity of the crime is not practiced even today, which places an inmate who committed an unarmed robbery in the same cell block with murderers and people who have committed many kinds of crimes, including those still active in cocaine trafficking.

The formation of the Red Command resulted from an ethic established inside the prison population that arrived through the socialist ideas brought by the political prisoners under the military dictatorship. “The men were committed to solidarity,” says Simone. “The guys who had just entered the jail could no longer be sold as tindás – sexual servants. There were no longer so many fights in the prison. People would no longer kill each other over a pair of jeans. And the quilingue – the thief who robs the thief – was no longer accepted. This Ethics Code came to life from the access to the knowledge brought by the middle class guerrilla prisoners, although they never mixed with the other inmates,” she notes.

Then, there were pressures from the middle classes “to separate the sons of the elite from the common prisoners, transforming them into a special category of ‘political prisoners,’ which happened in the mid 70s,” recalls Simone.

So during those four years that the political prisoners and common prisoners lived together in the Ilha Grande penitentiary, the street gangs – known as falanjes – created the Ethics Code and brought it back to their communities. “When there was a robbery, the guy would go back to his community and hold a big feast with cachaça (a popular Brazilian alcohol drink made from sugarcane) and held work parties to build their houses,” she says. This occurred in an era in which drug trafficking was very different than the form that we know today.

Marijuana was the only thing sold in the slums, “but no kid was aloud to enter a drug dealership. In the slums, people would only smoke after dark. And it would not be smoked in front of elderly people. The drug traffickers would come downtown to sell marijuana, because the middle class would not go up into the slums. This was the era of the horizontal crime organization, where the thief gave back to his community,” she tells.

After this division between common prisoners and political prisoners there were ninety men left that had been living in Ilha Grande, when it was the biggest maximum security presidium in Brazil. Those ninety men exchanged books, demanded their rights as citizens, and started to influence the entire jail system in the country. They communicated among themselves through the congo, a code and numbers system that was only understood by those prisoners that knew about its existence. This system started with numbers and evolved to signs, words. It was not the time of cell phones and wiretaps, the notes were transported, but could be only understood by the ones that belonged to that specific street gang.

Thus those ninety men were isolated from the rest of the common prisoners that arrived in the end of the 70s, when the anistia, or “amnesty” – the exiled were allowed back in the country – became law and the movement of the disappeared people started to despair over the missing people. They became the political prisoners in a time when the military dictatorship was about to end.

This solidarity that came from the socialist thoughts was passed inside the jails, by the congos, and the ethics code. The Chilean – the aforementioned father of the drug dealer Escadinha who was famous at the end of the 70s – was also responsible for the dissemination of the socialist thoughts inside the slum so called Juramento. The Chilean was never a criminal, he had escaped from the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and married a mulata (Brazilian kind of women born from the mix between races).

Cocaine in the Slums:
“Purgatory of Beauty and Evil”


Simone Bastos
Photo D.R. 2003 Al Giordano
Simone Bastos de Menezes explains clearly the division of times using a metaphor between the marijuana, socialist thought, the horizontality of the marginalized, and their solidarity with the community. That was its turning point, starting from the “summer of the can” in 1986, “when the drug traffic became visible”, she says.

To Simone, the slum is merely a microcosm of the capitalist system. There is very clear labor market. The young boy start as a fogueteiro – using fireworks or kites to let the people know that the police are coming. Then he becomes a vaporeiro – a drug distributor. Then he becomes a soldado to defend the organization until he reaches the highest level: Gerente de Boca – the manager of a drug distribution point. This way, the social marginalization leads easily to criminal marginalization. “The cocaine arrives in the slums in a capitalist manner, with it’s own labor market,” says Simone.

In the last 15 years, cocaine spread everywhere in Brazil. The narco became known as the so-called “parallel power,” and started to close all businesses in some neighborhoods at certain times to show its strength. This continues into the immediate present, in the state Governor Rosinha Garotinho – a name that means little flower – who claims to be “tough on crime,” and Freddy Sea Side is now a prisoner and pop star being chased by the TV cameras.

From Escadinha – the Chilean son – in 1968 to Freddy Sea Side today, drug traffic has grown to new proportions. Criminality in Brazil is dominated by this profit-driven labor-market of cocaine that presents itself to marginalized communities as the only way to survive. In the slum, the law is the one of the drug trafficking market. It is no longer an Ethics Code of solidarity to its community, as it was in the past decades when the robbers held those parties. Today there is a violent, tense, immediate crime by drug consumers who need large amounts of money to pay prohibition prices.

In 1987, a year after that famous summer of the can, there was no lack of marijuana in town. The dealers realized that the cocaine market was already established, and that both drugs could coexist in the city.

“Even the youths in the slums had started to use cocaine,” says Simone. She remembers a scene she witnessed in the slum named Mangueira then: “A boy, who directed a street drug dealership, he was very young, around 16, arrived with two guns on his belt and there he bought ten pairs of Nike sneakers, all the same color, from a woman selling stolen goods on the street. He had 1,000 reales (the Brazilian currency) worth of identical sneakers. The boy was unconcerned with bringing his profits back to his house or community. He wanted to be the same as the playboy in Ipanema,” she says. Simone describes the present condition of drug trafficking in the slums of Rio de Janeiro as that of a hierarchical drug dealing organization, very different from when it was organized by those the media called “the Red Command” (Comando Vermelho).

Perspectives of a youth lost in the dust

Simone believes that it is time for the media to face the drug issue from different points of view. It’s time for the media to play its role as social actor role and expand the debate on the subject to heath, educational, structural, legal, and social, points of view.

“From my husband’s generation, from those ninety men that became political prisoners when the military dictatorship was ending, today there are only four still alive,” tells Simone.

William was born in the 1940s and has three kids. He is one of the last men behind the bars under the National Security Law, the one that started back in the 1964 dictatorship.

If this generation, that robbed banks to build houses for their community, extinguished through the years as a result of the social violence, imagine how different the crime would be nowadays in the Marvelous City, as Rio de Janeiro is commonly called. Throwing Molotov cocktails into the lobby of a fancy Hotel on Copacabana Beach (as happened the other night at the 32-story Meridian), or setting buses on fire, is an act of violence comparable to the cultural misery in which the youngsters doing these things were raised. The options left to someone that was born in a slum is only one. He who is able to escape is a Hollywood exception.

Today, Simone, the marginal diplomat as she describes herself, follows her work in the non-governmental organization known as of the Integrated Program of the Marginalized (PIM, in its Portuguese initials), where she is responsible for work to improve the jail system in Brazil. She creates projects for jails, mainly on health issues, regarding the HIV and harm reduction.

Her profile is similar to that of many Brazilians. Simone has “hope that the permissive discourse of the left becomes a social commitment with the change,” in a reference to the election of President Lula da Silva. There is a hope that the Lula administration will be able to create programs to combat the marginality of people.

This applies to the actual drug policy, responsible for cocaine’s labor-market in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, to the social exclusion of the people that live in the slums that cannot find jobs, and to expanding public access to the culture as a punk rock song popular in the time of the summer of the can sang; “because we don’t want only food: we want food, fun and art,” when this writer, kind reader, was only a kid.


Simone and William
Photo D.R. 2002 Jornal da Tarde

Simone and William are the couple that survived from a generation that didn’t make the revolution. And they keep fighting against social exclusion. And maybe, perhaps, because she never gave up, Simone’s dream might still come true. “I think that my dream to live with William will only come true when we are really old,” sighs this Authentic Brazilian that never lost hope.

Read Part I of this series:
A Drug Policy from Below

Read Part II of this Series:
Drug Users and Addicts are “Self-Organizing” in Brazil

Read Part III of this Series:
130 Drug War Opponents Gather in São Paulo

Read Part IV of this Series:
Brazil Health Official Slams Current Drug Policy

Read Part VI of this Series:
The History of Brazilian Harm Reduction

Read Part VII of this Series:
“President Lula, listen to the experience of your countrymen!”

Read Part VIII of this Series:
The Marketing of Drug War Myths

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America