When Stefan Zweig first arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1936, he was overwhelmed not only by the city’s magnificent landscape but also by its ordered architecture and city planning. This encounter he would later describe as being ‘one of the most powerful impressions of my whole life’. In his Brazil: Land of the Future, a book that was an exercise in wish-fulfilment masquerading as travelogue, Zweig believed the country to be the embodiment of ‘future civilisation and peace in our world’.
Over 70 years later Brazil held the world’s worst record for homicidal violence: for every ten people killed, one was a Brazilian. Rio, the cidade maravilhosa (marvellous city), may have retained its beauty in spite of being hemmed in by favelas, but it was now damned.
In Nemesis, Misha Glenny, an award-wining investigative journalist and expert on organised crime, has turned his attention to the drugs, violence and poverty that thrive in Rocinha, Rio’s most infamous favela. Rocinha, a ‘maze of veins and capillaries that feed the complex body of this dense settlement’, is no ordinary ghetto; it has mushroomed next to the city’s smartest districts, attracting tourists looking for an authentic ‘third-world’ experience. Rather than attempt a comprehensive study of this labyrinthine world, Glenny has wisely chosen the charismatic drugs lord Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, known by his sobriquet ‘Nem of Rocinha’, through whom to tell this terrible yet fascinating history.
The rise and fall of Nem of Rocinha is a case of life imitating art. Antônio, an intelligent and upstanding manager on a modest salary, finds that he doesn’t have the means to pay for his daughter’s medical treatment (she suffers from an uncommon disease, Langerhans cell histiocytosis) and borrows the 20,000 reals from Rocinha’s resident Don, Lulu. Once Antônio makes the pact, in exchange for working in Lulu’s security detail, his ascent to the top of Rocinha’s hierarchy is rapid. Even for the most feared gangsters, there is no security of tenure. Murder and incarceration only assist those with a keen eye on career progression.
And yet Nem is no ordinary drugs kingpin: he sees himself as an entrepreneur rather than a hoodlum. Unlike many of his gun-toting predecessors who have died by the bullet, he eschews violence for welfare and justice. He insists on three iron rules: no one under 16 can work in the business; no crack cocaine; and no petty crime. When he orders a rapist to be handed over to the military police, he is told that it will cost him 10,000 reals. He asks, ‘What sort of a world are we living in […] when you have to pay the cops to arrest criminals?’ But even for benign favela dictators, the choice between death and arrest comes all too quickly. In Nem’s case it is the latter, though how complicit he is in facilitating his own incarceration is left an open question.
Through this gripping narrative of cocaine and slaughter — the body-count has a surreal quality to it — Glenny skilfully weaves the history of the narcotics trade in the region and the rise of the favela in Brazilian culture. He is especially adept at analysing the way drugs, gun-running and money all interconnect, and how the crime lords and the various police forces (for the most part corruptible) are riven with factionalism.
Well-conceived though his book is, Glenny might have taken a more even-handed approach in his assessment of Brazilian society. There is a tendency to find heroism in the underdog — the author seems to have been charmed by Nem in his interviews — and to simplify the relationship between rich and poor in this city (and country) of extremes.
Brazil is a far more complex nation than this image might suggest. Even today it remains culturally diverse in spite of Getúlio Vargas’s campaign of brasilidade (Brazilisation) in the late 1930s. Moreover, through its membership of the emerging economies of Brics, Brazil has left the rest of the continent behind. (The country has always maintained a peculiar relationship with its neighbours.) And yet, in spite of a certain arrogance, Brazil had often revealed a complexo de vira-latas, a ‘mongrel dog [who looks for scraps] complex.’ In spite of its early promise, the land of the future continues to be stymied by its past. As Hernane Taveres de Sá wrote in 1947: ‘Rio de Janeiro is the world’s most beautiful city and the worst thing that has ever happened to Brazilians.’ In his admirable book Misha Glenny has shown this still to be the case.
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