Sunday, November 13, 2011

Caught Trunk Driving

On Wednesday, November 9, the most wanted drug traffic boss of Rio de Janeiro was caught by Brazil special forces hidden in the trunk of a car. Antonio Bonfim Lopes better known as Nem was trying to escape the Rocinha favela the shantytown which was his business base and was under siege by the police. Scores of other less prominent gang members were also caught in the police noose. For a traficante, drug kingpin of Nem’s status, it was an anticlimactic grand finale, more soap opera than “Elite Squad” (the prized Brazilian film “Tropa de Elite”).
What is astounding about this "catch-a-drug-dealer" episode is how easy it was. At the same time, it makes a fascinating story due to the personality of the central character, as well as the frightening reputation of the Rocinha shantytown.
Rocinha is probably the largest slum in Rio de Janeiro; no one knows exactly how many people live there, any number between 70,000 and 200,000 (picture below). Rocinha is a sprawling hillside slum which divides residential Rio in two parts. It is a well-established gang sanctuary in the middle of Rio de Janeiro. During periods of gang and police confrontation, the roads are blocked and the city is de facto taken hostage.

Rocinha is regarded as a drug supermarket, and Nem was reigning supreme over this multifaceted and prosperous business. In order to make Rio de Janeiro safer for the 2014 Soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, the local government has embarked on a vast favela crackdown operation. During the past two years, drug gangs and dealers have been physically removed by force from some twenty favelas around Rio. So far the pacification efforts have led to broad social improvements. These operations were regarded as dress rehearsals for the occupation and pacification of Rocinha.
Nem, 35 (see picture below) became the drug king of Rocinha in 2005 when his former alcoholic boss lost control and was subsequently killed by the police. Nem did not look the part. He ran his drug cartel as a savvy businessman rather than an unsophisticated drug trafficker. Nem filed income tax, but didn’t report any income although his revenue is estimated at US$ 5 million a month. He invested in real estate and in the health and education of his kids, not in samba schools like other drug kingpins. Nem did spread his wealth around, helping many destitute people in the shantytown. Many “needy” policemen were also on his payroll, apparently half of his profits were spent on local police “protection”.

He is a clean-living family man, didn’t do drugs. He had zero tolerance for crack addicts, and routinely fired his employees if caught taking crack. Crack addicts fail to report to work and tend to steal to indulge their vice. Nem worked-out daily in his house’s small gym; he also built a swimming pool on the deck of his house which has a commanding view over Rocinha. 
When the federal police stopped his car, the driver claimed diplomatic immunity to avoid a car search; he argued that he was none other than the honorary consul of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This indicates some degree of geopolitical sophistication which is not a usual trait among the Rio drug barons. As the police remained unconvinced, the driver changed tack and offered a $ 570,000 bribe. This is a huge amount of money for anyone let alone a policeman. Pay scale for policemen varies greatly but it averages $ 900 a month in Rio.  However, the policeman refused and opened the trunk. A rumpled Nem got out. Since this episode the policeman who goes by the name of Disraeli (like the 19th century English Prime Minister) has become the poster boy for honest police in Brazil!
This is the film version, the version that was offered to us to believe. Many think that the true version is slightly different. Nem is far too smart to have let the cops snatch him from the trunk of a fleeing car. His lawyer may have negotiated his surrender to the federal police in order to avoid being killed by the local police, his former business partner. Upon his arrest, the first thing Nem did was to call his mother on the phone and ensure that his kids were at school. He then exposed the rotten apples within the Rio police.
The Rocinha crackdown may be over, but another more messy one is just starting within the local police. Stay tuned.