The Favela Big Boss

De Dicionário de Favelas Marielle Franco

Author: Carolina Christoph Grillo

Translated by: Aparecida Cristina Novaes Moura

Review: João Afonso Diniz Paixão and Junia C. S. M. Zaidan


“The Favela Big Boss” is the expression that nowadays defines the drug lord of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. This category refers only to the drug trade under the control of criminal “factions”, or “commands”, such as Comando Vermelho, Terceiro Comando, and Amigos dos Amigos. In other areas, though, where the so-called “[police] militias” operate drug trafficking, the head of these businesses isnot called “Favela’s Big Boss”.

The “Favela’s Big Bosses” claim not only the armed control of the drug selling points – the so-called “bocas de fumo” [lit. mouth of joint] – but also the areas in which they are circumscribed, intervening in other areas of local social life: They impose themselves as judges of strives – the so-called “desenrolos” (lit.unroll)”; they quite often interfere with neighbourhood associations , even imposing candidates and administrative staff members; they might charge fees on different economic activities, such as those by local trades, alternative public transport, household gas supply and illegal cable TV; they often support cultural events, such as bailes funk (Brazilian funk parties) and “pagode” shows; and, traditionally, they engage in social services, such as the distribution of toys for the kids and the purchase of medicines to some residents. As Zaluar [1] emphasized, they do not replace the State, but “act as patrons in the old Brazilian patronage style” and, as such, “keep alive a paradigmatic figure of our social history”.

It is important to emphasize that the figure of the “favela’s Big Boss” precedes drug trafficking. It dates back to the first reports on the favelas cariocas, as mentioned by the journalist Costallat [2], the “brave” Zé da Barra, described as the “unquestionable favela boss”. However, until 1980, the local leaderships were often related to jogo do bicho (an illegal gambling game), samba schools, political parties, administrative bodies and associations. Only after the trafficking of cocaine there started to be selling points of marijuana - which multiplied their profits - and did traffick gain its power thus causing the emergence of the “favela Big Boss” [3].

Local organization of drug retail

In Rio de Janeiro’s low-income housing areas – as in favelas and apartment blocks – a specific retail model of drug tradel control has expanded, which is quite different from the drug trade that happens in São Paulo’s outskirts and favelas [4]. Drug trafficking in favelas cariocas is managed by local drug trade businesses – called “firms” -, characterized by internally hierarchized relationships, properly to the selling points, by the dealers’ armed opulence, and eventually by their “translocal” articulation ability in the commands.

Opposing journalistic representations and the common sense of the drug trafficking organization in Rio de Janeiro, which portrays the commands as vertical structures, like the mafias or cartels, the main studies on the topic highlight that the trafficking hierarchy is, above all, local. Even the contacts for drug purchasing may be independent of the commands’ participation, which means that each favela’s big boss has its own “matuto” (supplier) and, if not, he will rely on other allies that strengthen him with the drug [5]. Such networks of illegal trading are still not directly subordinated to strategic groups of organized crime [6].

In Rio de Janeiro’s factions or criminal commands there is no leadership above the favela’s big bosses [7], since they constitute horizontal networks of mutual protection between big bosses [8]. Locally the “firms” of drug trafficking are themselves organized in structural pyramidal hierarchies, as in the supralocal context the commands’ alliances happen laterally. These supralocal alliances are mobilized particularly from the prisons, where the commands were formed and nowadays where most favela’s big Bosses are.

Some big bosses will be more prominent than others within the same faction, since they command more prosperous drug trafficking firms with more armed power. They have great influence on the factions’ political collective decisions, like those referring to establishing or breaking off alliances, territorial disputes with other commands, protests in the prisons (rebellions, hunger strikes, etc), as well as mediating conflicts between big bosses from the same command. However, these more powerful big Bosses do not interfere with the others’ local businesses.

In order to command traffick in the favelas from the prison or living outside the “boca de fumo” area, the big Bosses usually nominate a “general manager”, “front”, or “person in charge”, someone he relies on, to lead traffick in his place. Often the “front” is also called big Boss. He, in turn, nominates other “managers” and people incharge in each selling point or for the cargo of drugs , those who organize the dynamics in the “bocas de fumo” and share the profits from the business. Through this distribution of positions of trust , the big Boss expands his political basis and keeps the influx of the trading [9].

It is worth highlighting that the performance of local trafficking enterprises, led and articulated by big Bosses in the factions is centered in the distribution of drugs at particular areas, especially retail. According to Barbosa [10] drug trafficking networks are formed by a variety of unique articulations, regarding its profits, risks, trading mechanisms, with distinct operators until the drugs get to the retail market, which also has its own profit, risks and trading mechanisms. Thereby, although the Big Boss alongside wholesalers provides drug supply to his “bocas de fumo” [drug selling point],, he is much concerned with the drug distribution at local level.

Drugs sale in favelas of Rio de Janeiro happens in fixed commercial points, easily identifiable either by potential customers, by the police or by rival groups. This implies that an armed defense must be articulated in the “bocas de fumo” [drug selling points] to protect the drugs and the money, beyond lives and the dealer’s freedom. Since a great amount of money and drugs are in issue in the trafficking of cariocas favelas – especially with cocaine trade -, it came up the need to invest in the safety of the commercial points against police and rival traffickers attacks. “Big bosses” began to invest a significant amount of their profits in the purchase of armaments and, in parallel, in the payment of bribes known as “arrego”, in order to reduce police repression. Also, part of the firm's staff was relocated to strictly warlike functions, which contributed to a considerable increase in the contingent of trafficking.

The formation of these “troops” of armed men allows to stabilize the local power relations and to articulate the defense of the territories belonging to the "big bosses" and, consequently, to the faction. The resistance offered by traffickers to police raid operations in favelas or to attempted invasions by traffickers from another faction is called “containment” and is carried out by armed traffickers who are “on duty”, occupying the position of “soldiers”. Thus, the dominance of criminal commands over favela territories is evident mainly by ostensive possession of firearms - including large caliber ones - by traffickers.

Distinct from the criminal groups known as “milícias”, the drug trafficking factions neither count on political or public safety agencies nor on National Defence in their effective frameworks. However, they keep spurious relationships with state agencies and also systematic corrupt practices with the police, their rapport to institutions responsible for social control is loaded by armed confrontation with police forces.

The order imposed by the favela’s big bosses

The journalistic literature [11] about drug trafficking factions in Rio de Janeiro uses to emphasize the absolute power of different roles - as dictator, mayor, judge, counsellor, delegate, torturers, etc – assumed by the favela’s big bosses. For sure, the dwellers living in territories controlled by the trafficking armed groups used to be submitted to an order imposed by the local traffic leadership.

The favela’s big boss or their nominated responsible referee about the conflicts and they have the prerogative to take pacific solutions or by the force, expelling, beating or even summary executing the parts involved in the conflict. These issues may be concerned to the illegal local trades, duties, charges of betrayal and denunciations, but often they handle about partners fights, disputes between neighbours and other strives without direct correlation to the trafficking itself.

The order imposed by the dealers usually includes also an interdiction to rape practice, paedophilia, thefts and robbery in the favela and in its surroundings. These actions of conflicts’ mediation refereed by the big boss or the person in charge in the favela are often referred to as “desenrolos”, but the press usually refer to them as “trafficking court”.

Surveys with the favelas residents show the anguish – or “suffocation” [12] – in the ones who see themselves subjected to arbitrary social controls by an order that “doesn´t have a defined understandable standard for them” [13]. According to Machado da Silva [14], “Everybody obeys just because they know they are weaker, as shown in other situations, non-submission implying necessarily in physical retaliation almost always lethal one”. The territorial contiguity with the traffickers exposes the dwellers in a “crossed fire” between trafficking and police violence constituting the experience of what Machado da Silva e Leite [15] called “life under siege”. These authors mention that the residents’ discourse clearly distinguishes between “workers” and “bandits”,understood as an attempt of “moral cleanness” concerning the traffickers with whom they are obliged to share the area in which norms are imposed to them.

Zaluar (1985) was the first who remarked that “workers” dwellers in favelas build up their identities in opposition to the “bandits” and “vagabonds”, observing an ambivalence in this relationship, since dwellers rate the “bandits” “in accordance with the local rules of reciprocity and justice” [16], in which crimes as robbery and homicide were not abstractly deemed as mean. Leite (2008) considers that what represents as “ambiguity” might be understood as “damage reduction resources” associated to the territorial contiguity and the trafficking. She distinguishes between two basic points: non-confrontation with the dealers and the maintenance of being in touch with them in case of unwinds. For her, “desenrolar” in this context considering the disparity of forces involved means to put in action a repertoire that residents avoid the violence to come over themselves, their family and/or their friends [17].

Yet, without distinction between workers and bandits, one can see that the residents themselves can turn to the dealers to seek solutions for their conflicts, either because they are impaired to look for the police in the favela [18] or because they do not find answers in other institutions to which they turn to. Zaluar (1985) has indeed described that residents ask “bandits” for help, “when they were disturbed by local urchins/pivetes” [19] and, more recently, research on the favelas occupied by the Police Pacifying Units (UPP), Menezes [20] recognized what he termed “residents nostalgic discourse" regarding extra-legal solutions of the traffickings to thefts, robbery and rapes.

Residents’ perception regarding the order imposed by the dealers varies from one favela to another, depending on how the big boss exerts his power. Some are arbitrary but others search for preserving the respect to the residents. Misse (2003) observed that the arrest of the trafficking leaderships triggered a process of “juvenilization of trafficking”, bringing about a dissemination of tyrannic ways of domination in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

“Wars” and “coups d’état”

Rio de Janeiro has a number of commands or factions that dispute the control of drug trafficking in low-income housing areas, leading to armed conflicts referred to as “war”. The most popular commands are the CV (Comando Vermelho, Red Command), TCP (Terceiro Comando Puro, Pure Third Command) and ADA (Amigos dos Amigos, Friends of Friends). As mentioned before, these organizations are constituted by networks of alliances between the big bosses and, insofar as the big boss’ authority over the favela is guaranteed by the faction to which the big boss belongs to. According to Grillo (2013), the commands certify the big boss’ possession over the drug selling points in a defined area, in such a way that the alienation of this possession implies necessarily a break with the faction to which the big boss is allied to. In case of armed conflict to obtain the trafficking control in an area, allied big bosses may make available their “soldiers” as a way of restraining the raids or taking back the territories.

The removal of a big boss happens by means of armed raids in the favela by groups of traffickers of a rival faction or as articulated betrayal by the high staff of the local firm – known as “coup d’état” -, that tend to trigger armed conflicts as well. The dynamics of raids favours the territorial basis extension of one sole big boss, putting under his domain discontinuous territories [21], that also comprehend other favelas, instead of just the continuous territories of one single favela or favela complex. The leaderships that succeed in aggregating new spaces to their domain emerge as leaderships also in the internal decision processes of the command. The wars put in motion mechanisms of factional cohesion and reconfigure the existing power relations, leading some big bosses to appear as political leaders of higher projection within the factions.

The betrayals called coup d’état usually come out of the disputes between the big boss and the “front”, over the share of trafficking incomes that fit the big boss. In the absence of the boss, the general manager who leads the trafficking articulates with an enemy faction to take over the whole trafficking command in a particular area, displacing somehow the boss from his position. The command to which the boss belongs, usually supports him in his campaign against the front which betrayed him. However, there might be exceptions when some alliances are broken between the bosses in the same faction. This is the case, for instance, reported by Glenny [22], when in 2004 dealers from Rocinha broke with the CV (Red Command). The author alleges the murder of Diego, Rocinha’s boss, inside the prison to the “head” of CV. Lulu, the successor nominated by Diego himself although linked to the CV entered in a dispute with Dudu, who had taken over the front position in his absence. Contradicting the common tendency to support allied bosses, the CV supported the front Dudu in the dispute and in this way, Lulu sought support from an enemy faction ADA (Friends of Friends). Lulu was then murdered by the specialized police, BOPE, but his successors linked to the ADA succeeded in the traffick control in Rocinha. More recently, in 2017, after a new coup d’état, the CV regained traffic control in Rocinha.


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