Rio de Janeiro Erupts
The Drug War Turns Rio into a Scene from Film Noir
By Karine Muller
Reporting from Rio de Janeiro
March 5, 2003
“Sunglasses protect the eyes giving the possibility of another point of view”
– Max de Castro – musician and poet – known as the carioca composer Carlota
March 1, 2003, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: We pass by looted supermarkets, closed stores, burned buses, where grenades exploded in front of luxurious buildings, police cruisers scraping the streets of the city, traffic has crawled to a stop, the population is in a state of alert… Rio de Janeiro, in recent days, has become a true-life scene out of Film Noir.
The beauty and cultural wealth of the favela slums portrayed so well in the film “Rio at 40 Degrees” by Nelson Pereira dos Santos has given way to the realities of “City of God” by Fernando Meirelles. The exclusion that leads this city’s young inhabitants to work as drug dealers, in order to have access to all of high society’s expensive fashion products, now explodes into acts of violence all over the city.
Public Safety Secretary Josias Quintal says that drug trafficking in Rio is in a state of crisis. The drugs that are arriving are of poor quality, and this causes economic losses in the retail sector, that is to say, the in the favelas. This rebellion allegedly by the crime organization known as the Red Command – Comando Vermelho – led by Luiz Fernando da Costa, also known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, or “Freddy Seaside” – the media tells us – has shown its power against society and the State, a takeover by a Narco-State.
Even the President, Lula da Silva, took the situation in Rio seriously and made the Armed Forces available for the local government to act into the slums. The president also ordered the transfer of Beira-Mar to a penitentiary far from Rio.
This is not the first time that the media tells us that the narco-command has directed criminal acts from Bangú prison. Twice previously, it has been widely said, this group has shut down the city, commanded attacks by gunmen upon the State House and City Hall, fomented rebellions inside the Bangú complex, one of the largest prisons in the country, and ordered the killings of its rivals in the so-called “Third Command” drug trafficking group.
Fernandinho Beira-Mar was born in the Beira-Mar slums and was selling drugs before he was 20 years old. Authorities claim that he later made an alliance with Paraguayan drug dealers and, that he entered into an alliance with Colombian rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – a claim the FARC has publicly denied– to trade weapons for cocaine, making his organization one of the largest narco-trafficking organizations in embattled Brazil. According to police, his group is responsible for sixty percent of the drug trafficking in this country.
This movie that we are watching begins at the border. Brazil is the largest drug consumer nation in the world, according to some international agencies, or, it is at least second to the United States as a drug consumer nation. The events in the city of Rio de Janeiro are only the latest consequence of a failed policy called the war on drugs. Beira-Mar and his followers are merely front men for bigger fish who make millions of dollars through the illegality of drugs. We never get to see those faces while the Brazilian press is only focused on events in the favela slums.
In his book, “Narco-Trafficking,” journalist Mário Magalhães of the daily Folha de São Paulo, writes that drug prohibition was discussed in Brazil more than 250 years ago when, in 1737, the São Paulo legislature restricted “doctors, pharmacists and surgeons” from selling substances like opium. After a protest by merchants, King João the Fifth revoked the law within a year. The writer also tells us that in 1914 the daily O Estado de São Paulo reported that the children of wealthy families were using cocaine, saying that they were “dragged into the most dangerous proclivities of this vice.”
In Rio de Janeiro, the popular carioca (a carioca is someone from Rio de Janeiro) composer José Barbosa da Silva, know as Sinhô (Sir, in English) (1888-1930), the King of Samba, composed a song titled “Cocaine.” Here are some verses:
Só um vício me traz
Cabisbaixa me faz
Reduz-me a pequenina
Quando não tenho mão
A forte cocaína
Which, translated, says:
Only one vice brings me
Crestfallen it makes me
Reduces me teeny
When I do not have
The strong cocaine
This is to illustrate the strong presence of the drug among the intellectuals and artists who made cultural history in this city in the 1920s.
The difference between the past and today is that, now, the user is part of a giant chain with disastrous consequences for humanity of which consumption is only one end. The global illegal drug industry puts $400 billion U.S. dollars into motion per year. By some estimates, this amounts to eight percent of all international trade.
And this is why powerful forces hinder efforts toward legalization. The policy of prohibition foments the industry of narco-trafficking. The powerful have benefited from this in every way: the corrupt officials, the mafiosos, and politicians, who are high above all the media-invented celebrities of narco-trafficking like Fernandinho Beira-Mar.
Fundamentally, the crime of drug trafficking spreads product that not only can destroy a human being, but that adds greater societal harm through violence, intimidation, corruption, terror and fear. And so if the State cannot combat organized crime, it should not also interfere with the individual freedoms of every citizen. Whether to consume drugs or not is a personal decision. The amount of money used today to combat drug trafficking could be better spent on other social problems, as well as on treatment for those who are chemically dependent.
It is very much in style these days, in Rio, to speak of “Parallel Power” or of a “Parallel State” caused by narco-traffickers enriching themselves through drug prohibition. But this film, twirling in front of us, is more like a Parallel Universe. This can be seen in the streets of Copacabana – the Babylon of Rio de Janeiro – where the business of drug trafficking is camouflaged by the system that protects it.
The people are always out and about. And when the lights go on, at night, everything seems invisible in this City of God, in this city of men and women, in this city of narco-traffickers.
Now it is Carnaval. If the poet Cartola were alive today, he would have in the reflection of his sunglasses the poor people making art history today… And, clearly, he would see the military serving as police in the favelas, in the streets, in the Carnival parade grounds known as the Sambódromo…
But what would he say through his sunglasses, about the drug prohibition and what this terrible policy has done to Rio, and the future of this place and its people? In spite of it all, not a single Carioca would allow the Samba to die in the marvellous city.
Leia este artigo em português
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