Drugs in the City of God

De Dicionário de Favelas Marielle Franco

Author: Maria de Lourdes da Silva

Translated by: João Afonso Diniz Paixão

Review: Aparecida Cristina Novaes Moura and André Broseghini

Origins of Cidade de Deus

The history of the neighborhood Cidade de Deus (Rio de Janeiro) begins with a violent action from the state: the compulsory removal of the favelas from the so-called noble areas of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Promoted at the cost of home invasions, evictions and arson, the proposal put forward was to relocate entire slum populations to housing developments built in distant areas, worsening commute and occupation by these populations.

Just like the favelas of origin, however, these townhouses did not have any infrastructural service, they lacked essential public services and had to count on an unreliable public system. The leitmotiv of the removal of the favelas was to raise market value of the occupied areas, which was linked to the effort of bringing order to the city planning by the State - always selective, precarious, and excludent.


This model of commitment of the Brazilian republican State with modernization sees in the Pereira Passos urban reforms its first major investment in the modelling of urban spaces in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Meeting the needs of the capital and the interests of the elite, the proposal lacked provision of essential services to the population, like sewage, tap water, electricity, education, public health, jobs, security and safety - except this last item: proactive policing was the only service offered ostensibly by the State from the start.


The other services were added little by little as new townhouses were aggregated to the project by the State. Cidade de Deus was not built in a day. The discretionary operation of services by the State to these communities still remains a strategic action, denounced because of its selective and precarious presence throughout the following decades, which have slowly but constantly stifled the populations that live there, driving future generations into development exile and untapped potentialities. excluding future generations from development and full potentialities abilities.

Some aspects of the removal of the original favelas that made up Cidade de Deus indicate the fragmentation of these populations, which includes the separation of families, forcing them to reestablish societal ties, especially within neighbourhoods. On top of it all, in Cidade de Deus various squats have been built in different moments during the establishment of the community, and perhaps that’s why the neighborhood may have developed a social identity mediated by these areas: Quadra 141, Vacaria, Apês, Quadra 13, Moquiço, Pantanal, etc. Among the different partnerships created in social processes of the various favela populations removed from that settlement, known as Cidade de Deus, there are samba schools; neighborhood associations; soccer teams; groups related to religious organizations of African origins, or still of Christian faith; there are also those institutions of crime, such as groups involved with robbery, subsequently leading to drug trafficking, etc.


Ever since different groups associated with crime settled in these areas, a dynamic of mutualacknowledgement recognition and clear boundary drawing has been established. During the 60s and 70s, the marihujana market took on the shape of a profitable business safer thanstore robberies. That is so because those involved did not have to stray into alien territory. Such dispute is at the heart of the war over the local cartel control.

The formation of selling points (pt. bocas de fumo; lit. mouth-of-joint) of marijuana

At the historical foundation of Cannabis1 in Brazil, there is an association of the drug with black people and those who lead lives considered astray. As a result of the shortage of registers found so far about Cannabis in distant times of Brazilian history and the difficulty in finding them, until recently it was believed that Cannabis had been brought to Brazil by African slaves, which is not exactly true since lots of Portuguese sailors involved in the market between Portugal, its colonies and Asia knew and smoked it for its therapeutic and recreational properties (FRANÇA, 2015). At the beginning of the 20th century, when the legal prohibition of drugs was established in the country, the “men of science” associated marijuana with black people, which was used to justify the surveillance of and interference in the behaviors and culture of Afro-Brazilians, such as abusive policial raids in the houses of worship of African diaspora religions at the start of the 20th century (SILVA, 2015)..

Until mid-20th century, despite the inclusion of marijuana in the drug prohibition act of 1932, many small growers spread around the country whose production was partly commercialized by vendors from the North to the South, moving between rural tourban areas. The crop of Cannabis, and likewise its therapeutic, recreational, ritualistic properties, seemed to be as popular as the domestic alembics of cachaça (a national distilled spirit). It’s likely that the many traditional ways of drug use came to the outskirts from the urban centers.

The first bocas de fumo of Cidade de Deus - also the first points of drug sale in the favelas - were supplied with only marijuana, hence its name, mouths-of-joint litterally translated.. Initially, drugs were sold only to locals, not necessarily people involved in illegal activities, but those whose habits stemmed from experiences of past social norms, which referred to traditions inherited from other ways of living and coexisting, outlining strategies of as well self- as social identity development, within community relationships, in the microcosm of local alliances.

During the first half of the 20th century, marijuana did not significantly penetrate other social groups, which helped to confine, as seen in the urban region of Rio de Janeiro, the circulation of drugs to places populated mostly by poor, black, mixed, and migrant populations. This stigma of marijuana as the drug of black, poor, migrant, and “astray-living” people would drastically change as of the first two decades of the second half of the 20th century, when artists, intellectuals and, above all, youth from more affluent classes started smoking maraijuana within the context of counterculture (DELMANTO, 2018).

In these social groupss, this habit comes from Europe and the States, along with the opposition to the mainstream and the capitalist system. This context may have created the necessary conditions for drugs to leave the poor areas and become available in other areas of the city, like schools, squares, cinemas, where unsuspected street vendors and meanderers (drug dealers from now on) commercialized joints. The presswas already crying out against marijuana use among university and high-school students, sold by drug dealers that moved around the city (FRANÇA, 2015). However, there are few registers of how this sneaky way of trafficking, there on the streets, led to the more organized mouth-of-joint businesses in marginalized areas of the favelas. It’s clear that the marijuana use by other social groups, especially the middle and upper class youth, calls for revisions to the meanings built for this drug by both medical science and justice system.

Doctors and psychiatrists started talking to the parents of these affluent youths, showing new pieces of international research that downplayed the drug’s effects as well as its addiction. Meanwhile, criminal mobs revamped themselves to supply the drug from the favela, far from the proactive State presence and, at the same time, without the risk of indictment for loitering or trafficking while moving around the city. This aspect has added an important element to the trajectory of the “bocas de fumo” (selling points) in recent times, as part of its members never leave the favela, nor do they know or move around other city spaces, nor do they enjoy other places or people from distinct social realities. It’s a population confined to the bonds of trafficking, and also to scarcity of humanizing experiences, whose existence is circumscribed by the limits of the social network established by the community, defined by the values of a universe mediated by capitalist logic and warfare.

The connection of this drug to crime and violence coexists with a repertoire of opposition, often peaceful, from both hippies and those who practice or sympathize with the lifestyle proposed by the counterculture. Although lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is, alongside marijuana, the go-to drug of counterculture, LSD was not offered in the “bocas de fumo” (points of sale); its trade was different. Being a synthetic substance (produced in a lab) for medical use, it was practically unknown by favela’s citizens. As of today, those “bocas de fumo” are still responsible for the sale of a part of the drugs in circulation, while a significant variety of illicit drugs are still being sold at street-level, by traders very unlike favela’s dwellers - despite the fact that “bocas de fumo” have become a definitive symbol for illicit drugs supply, against which police activity still focuses its often brutal efforts on.

These new representations of marijuana match the current and well-established significations of the traditional use of the joint. Not only in favelas, peripheral to great urban centers, but also throughout the country, traditional users who smoked the drug resisted the impositions of the law, corroborating representations and uses of marijuana that are integrated to a tradition that is popular, recreational, festive, ritualistic, religious, medical, etc. This culture, however, will remain restrained as the flexibility given to the meanings and senses of the drug does not stem from the recognition of these cultural traditions and local cultivation. Brought by members of the wealthier classes as part of the “learning process” of the civilized world, such views will eventually prevail, among the favelas’ youth, bringing traditional conceptions pervading that space, with folk wisdom and popular practices of maraijuana use, linked to a variety of cultural manifestations, associated to transgression, rebellion and resistance as per the counterculture of the 60s butnot the culture of traditional use, which is slowly dying out.

The origin history of the “bocas de fumo” still needs to be told. Despite the various studies on drug trafficking, we lack research on the formation of this retail model. Based on what is known so far, the rise of consumption by richer wealthier classes between the 60-70s had an impact on the way the market and consumption occurred in the favelas, as well as in other regions of the country, resulting in considerable changes on the typology of crimes.


Until then, the gangs of robbers made up the more articulated and dangerous groups. These mobs came about in the 1950’s, when the explosive population growth went hand in hand with the upsurge of violence in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The newspapers then registered the fact and indicated that the criminal actions, related to defrauding by “crooks” and “thugs”, cleared space for the new clash between the police and “gangsters”, where firearms replaced the melee weapons (knives, straight razors, kitchen knives, etc.). When robbing banks became a more vulnerable and less profitable activity than drug trafficking begins tp attract more people. The migration of one activity to the other alters the correlation of strengths between local groups which, oncelinked to drug trafficking, intensify the disputes over points of drug sale, stimulating local rivalriesry and conflict.

There is still a lack of research on how marijuana supply then changed from the hands of small growers spread across the country to the hands of international drug trafficking apparatus. However, such matters lead to an understanding that drug trafficking has its own distinct trajectory, and that only at some point of its development did the favelas become an aspect of its history. The vulnerabilities and potentialities that enable favelas to be a space susceptible to the sale of these substances stem from, especially, the fact that they are beyond areas the State concentrated its actions via its social assistance institutions and social safety nets and, above all, social control, when the police is “turning a blind eye”, on one side, and is involved in the construction of the drug trafficking apparatus in the country, on the other side, which helped the activity reach the current proportions nowadays.