Publish in Analysis - Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Army patroling a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Corruption and an economic crisis are boosting the power of criminal gangs in the city. (Photo: Brazil Army)
‘We are all criminals’ say Rio gangsters as corruption woes continue.
RIO DE JANEIRO -- In a shanty town or “favela” that tumbles down one of the mountains close to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue, the steps reach a house with a sign above its door: “God is my protector.” A dozen young drug gang members holding AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and radios lounge outside. The gang is being hunted by police in connection with the murder of an officer in a favela overlooking Rio’s upmarket Leblon neighborhood. A 29-year-old cradling an AK-47 and 9mm handgun claims he took part in the shootout. He blames the rising violence on corrupt policemen trying to steal drugs and extort money from the gangs. But not only the policemen: “This place is rotting, and everyone is responsible, us traffickers, the police, politicians, businessmen, everyone is a criminal here in Brazil these days.”
The police officer was one of the latest victims of a wave of violence that is sweeping the Brazilian city, forcing the federal government to send troops to patrol the slums just as the country is emerging from the deepest recession in its history and still reeling from a corruption scandal centered on Petrobras, the state-owned oil company based in Rio, which has implicated everyone from President Michel Temer down.
While Temer last week survived the second congressional vote in three months on whether he should face criminal trial – after being caught on tape discussing bribes with businessman Joesley Batista of JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacking company – the Petrobras scandal has put former Rio state governors behind bars and is threatening the careers of scores of other politicians and businessmen, including the once high-flying moguls Marcelo Odebrecht and Eike Batista. And the metropolis of 6.5 million people that only 12 months ago showcased its natural beauty with a controversial but ultimately successful Olympic Games today is a symbol of everything that is going wrong with Latin America’s largest country.
The economic crisis has ransacked government budgets while the corruption scandals have triggered a leadership vacuum that Brazil’s aggressive criminal gangs are rapidly trying to fill. In response, Rio’s former high-flying governor Sérgio Cabral initially installed a new community-policing program in some of the vast favelas. The idea was to follow this up with improved public services, ranging from rubbish collection to sewerage, which have been traditionally neglected by the state. But most of this has not materialized. Residents, activists, and analysts believe the security program was really aimed at pacifying the favelas while the city hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, paving the way for Cabral to stay in office.
The gangs are now back with warfare rising after a rift between two of Brazil’s dominant criminal factions – the Primeiro Comando da Capital based in São Paulo but encroaching into Rio, and the local Comando Vermelho. And Cabral was arrested and sentenced last month to 45 years in prison, for bagging funds received from bribes for projects such as a revamp of Rio’s Maracanã stadium for the World Cup, and infrastructure schemes for the slums. This was followed by the arrest of Carlos Nuzman, Brazil’s Olympics head and once an associate of Cabral, after he admitted to having 16 gold bars in a Swiss bank and with racketeering, money laundering and breaking currency laws for alleged bribery in Olympics.
Locals argue that whereas in the past, Rio’s problems with law and order stemmed partly from generalized poverty, today they are largely the result of politics and corruption. This, coupled with violence, is hardening public attitudes on law and order that could encourage the rise of right-wing candidates in elections next year. With voters feeling that Brazil is festering, and with Rio seeming to be unravelling, if opinion polls are right a likely successor to Temer would be Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist who thinks the police on the street should be licensed to kill.
Bolsonaro holds 17 percent of support according to recent polls, only trailing behind former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva… who may be removed from the race if he is convicted on graft-related charges. With the elites perceived as nothing more than corrupt politicians and businessmen, even in a country that has suffered three decades of military rule its opinion surveys show that almost almost four in every ten Brazilians believe the generals’ return to power would be beneficial.
This view was reinforced by Temer’s survival of the prosecution votes and after senators allowed the former leader of the PSDB party and 2014 presidential candidate, Aécio Neves, to remain in his position after he too was allegedly taped discussing bribes with Batista of JBS. Bolsonaro faces major hurdles, such as a being a one-man political party and lacking a political machinery, television airtime, and the possible rise of less controversial candidates.
One of those is the mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, a businessman who is seen as an outsider too. However, Doria has been losing support because he is seen to be neglecting Brazil’s megapolis, which is replete with homeless persons and crack addicts, in favour of pursuing his presidential ambitions. And Bolsonaro’s chances are bolstered by his growing support in the social media – still mainly concentrated in the urban middle classes – and the possibility of an alliance with the powerful evangelical Christian bloc, which shares his negative views on gay rights.
The gang member in the favela certainly does not favor Bolsonaro yet. But like most Brazilians he slams the politicians for the poor example they set for everyone else. “Brazil will never get ahead with these politicians, so here we are left with putting our trust in two things: your gun and God.”
Republished with permission from Tenacitas International.