Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, by Misha Glenny
A portrait of a reluctant Brazilian crime boss risks sanitising his deeds, but works well when it takes a broader perspective on Brazil and the drug-consuming world
An operation to search for drugs in the favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last year. Photo: Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Nemesis: One Man and the Battle For Rio
If the phenomenal popularity of the TV series Breaking Bad is any indicator, the world loves stories about ordinary men pushed into the drug trade out of a need to protect their families. The investigative journalist Misha Glenny, who has good form covering global crime, frames his latest book as just such a narrative.
Nemesis recounts the criminal career of the Rio de Janeiro favela lord Nem of Rocinha – real name Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes. The city’s recent socioeconomic history, and Brazil’s prominence in the postimperialist resurgence of Latin America, contextualise Nem’s story.
There are some 900 favelas, or shanty towns, in and around Rio. Many of these sprang up amid the surge of internal migration since the 1960s, as nordestinos flocked from the savannahs to seek employment in the booming coastal city. Rocinha, perched on a hill near some of Rio’s wealthiest areas, became the most notorious of the favelas.
From the late 1970s, channels opened up along Brazil’s borders with Bolivia and Colombia for the trafficking of cocaine, the popularity of which exploded in the affluent 1980s. Brazil soon became not only a key wholesale distributor to Europe and the US, but one of the biggest domestic cocaine markets in the world. By 1984, “it was snowing in Rio” all year round.
To feed this domestic market, drug cartels emerged in the favelas. Because of the lawlessness of these slums, which had been routinely neglected by Brazilian politicians and middle-class society for decades, the cartels often maintained order, policing areas that official law enforcement – corrupt and split into myriad uncooperative factions – generally avoided.
Nem, who would one day be “the don of the hill”, was born and bred in Rocinha, but was “repulsed” by the violence generated by the drugs trade. He stayed away from drugs and worked his way up to become a team leader in a magazine distribution company. When he was 24, however, a medical emergency involving his young daughter left him with no choice but to approach Lulu, the well-liked favela lord, to seek financial aid. To pay Lulu back, Nem joined his organisation.
Nem started as a lowly lookout man, but soon gained Lulu’s esteem, and when Lulu was assassinated, he took charge of the business. Leading a criminal gang that policed a favela of 100,000 people, his policy was to keep violence to a minimum. This community-minded don served as the “effective president, prime minister and most powerful businessman of a medium-sized city”.
The book begins and ends with an account of Nem’s dramatic arrest in 2011. With Rocinha under lockdown by police and the military, Nem’s lawyers attempted to spirit him away in the boot of a car. That things would not end well for Nem was inevitable: fearful of international embarrassment at being unable to bring order to its cities in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Brazil had been implementing a policy of “pacification”. The aim was to finally get into the favelas, dismantle the crime gangs, and rid Brazil of the images of young men with machine guns and grenade belts swaggering through its streets.
Hailed by Glenny as “one of the boldest experiments in urban security”, pacification has been a qualified success. The drawbacks are that it demands great resources, has been implemented in only a fraction of Rio’s favelas, and tends to create a security vacuum in which rape and domestic violence thrive as they never did under the rule of the gangs.
Nemesis reads best when the feuds and intrigues of the favela gangs are hitched to a broader perspective on Brazil and the drug-consuming world. Later chapters are too focused on the intricacies of Nem’s arrest and activities to be of keen general interest.
There is plenty of insight into the life of the favelas, though, which boom to the rhythms of all-night funk parties, frantic social-media activity and conservatively macho sexual rites whereby any self-respecting gangster must be seen to sleep with many women simultaneously.
An offbeat anecdote details the kidnapping for ransom by the police of Nem’s beloved pet monkey, Chico-Balo. (“Nem adored the monkey and the monkey adored Nem.”) This interspecies footnote in favela history ends badly when the cops accidentally – or was it? – let Chico-Balo fall out of their car window as they speed away from Rocinha.
Nem claims not to have advocated or partaken of the grisliest facets of favela drug crime, such as “microwaving”, a particularly evil practice, which involves wrapping a victim in tyres that have been doused in petrol, then setting him alight.
During the “battle for Rio” of 2007, bandidos mainly affiliated with the Red Command, a drug cartel with Marxian ideological roots, wreaked carnage across Rio. In the vilest incident, a bus was forced to stop by masked gunmen, then set alight. Some passengers managed to hurl themselves out the window, only to be fired at by the waiting gunmen. The rest were burned alive.
At times Glenny’s respect, even admiration, for his subject, together with Nem’s reluctance to talk about aspects of what is an ongoing criminal investigation – he is in a maximum-security prison, awaiting trial – give rise to suspicions of sanitisation. It is as if Nem’s extraordinary emergence to become head of a drugs cartel, and one of the most respected dons ever to rule Rocinha, all came to pass without him getting his hands dirty.
Glenny is adamant that the violence and disorder generated by favela cartels are symptoms of a wider malaise: the war on drugs. Like most lucid analysts, he insists that the policy of prohibition is not only unworkable but also disastrous. “The logic of the War on Drugs,” he writes, “created a vicious circle of murder and excess that united the arms manufacturers of America, the traffickers of South America, and the coke habits of the middle classes from Berlin to Los Angeles.”
If the policy of narcotics prohibition were part of a private-sector strategy, it “would have been discarded decades ago as disastrously unproductive”. For now it is still a career killer for a mainstream politician to state the obvious about prohibition. Until this changes, more men and women will make choices similar to Nem’s.
Those who live amid the nerve centres of the global drug market can only hope that, rather than sadists who microwave their enemies in flaming tyres, their streets and slums are ruled over by ordinary, decent drug lords.
Rob Doyle’s second book, This Is the Ritual, will be published in January by Bloomsbury and the Lilliput Press