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‘I Don’t Regret Being a Drug Trafficker. What Would You Do In My Place?’ – Rocinha’s Nem

Nem after his arrest in 2011. Photo by A/A Beatriz / Reuters

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For the original article in Portuguese by Gil Alessi published by EL PAÍS click here.

“E2 pawn to E4,” shouts Antônio Bonfim Lopes, 41, from his seven-square-meter cell at the Porto Velho federal penitentiary in the northern state of Rondônia, moving a piece of paper across a handmade board. The thermometer says 30ºC and the day is extremely humid, forcing you to constantly wipe your hands dry. Seconds later the response echoes across the corridor: “B8 knight to C6.” Playing chess at a distance with another prisoner as if it were Battleships is how the ex-trafficker known as Nem from Rocinha now spends the better part of his days, in a modern maximum-security prison built in the middle of the Amazon jungle. In a severe prison regimen that involves 22 hours a day inside an individual cell without a TV and only two hours of yard time, he explains that killing time—”and mosquitoes”—is critical. EL PAÍS visited the ex-trafficker in early March in the prison where he is serving more than 96 years for drug trafficking, forming a criminal gang, and money laundering.

One of the major leaders of the Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends) gang, Nem was crowned the boss of Rocinha in 2004 after the death of the then ‘boss of the hill,’ Luciano Barbosa da Silva, known as Lulu. His reign lasted until his arrest in 2011, and today is remembered by residents and even some police as a period of relative tranquility in the favela. Using corruption instead of violence to maintain control, Nem gradually became one of the most popular traffickers in the community. “They still ask my mother when I’ll be back there!” he jokes. “As if on the day I get out of prison I’ll be back trafficking drugs.” The idea is promptly dismissed. “I don’t want anything more to do with it, I want to spend time with my children, go to the beach, the theater, enjoy life.” Despite being condemned to a long prison sentence, Nem sees a near future with his seven children.

He shares his philosophy on the pacification of the favela with one simple example: “I used to ask my men, what do you want to do? Have a shoot-out with police or enjoy a funk party in Rocinha? Because if you want to exchange shots, there will be no party, the police will come up and close everything. And of course they always preferred to party.” His strategy of keeping violent crime rates as low as possible in order to keep the police (and the media) away made Rocinha one of Rio de Janeiro’s most lucrative favelas for trafficking, moving R$15 million (today around U$4.5 million) per month. Asked about the current situation in the community, with different groups disputing power and frequent exchanges of gunfire, Nem looks irritated. “For me this is a big betrayal. Knowing that there are now kids walking around with rifles in Rocinha and that traffickers are extorting residents, none of that existed when I was there,” he says in a veiled reference to his former bodyguard and now rival Rogério Avelino Santos, commonly known as Rogério 157, who was arrested in December 2017.

The story of Nem, and Rocinha, could have been very different were it not for corrupt police. With Lulu’s death in 2004, he envisioned a way out of crime. “I actually got out of drug trafficking when Lulu died. I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to continue with this life, I’ve already paid my debt.’ And I got out. I had a car that I was going to use to work as a taxi driver, that was my plan, I was going to leave my old life behind,” he says. But in Brazil things are not so simple. According to Nem, sectors of the police were not happy with his exit: Nem was a guarantee of stability in Rocinha, as well as a guarantee of massive tips for corrupt officers. “The police threatened my mother. They went to her house. ‘Either you go back [to trafficking] or it will end badly for her,’ they told me. I had no choice, I had to go back,” he says. “My life is like something out of a movie.”

The news of the recent federal military intervention in Rio de Janeiro arrived late to the ex-trafficker’s airless cell. He was not surprised. “I don’t think it will work. Rio’s problems will not be solved by the military or the police,” he says. According to Nem, federal troops partially occupied Rocinha twice during his reign in the favela, with no concrete results. “Do you really think there is no corruption in the Army? I remember some of their soldiers talking to our men: ‘Man, don’t stand with a rifle on the street, hide it or otherwise we’ll be in trouble with our sargent later,’” he laughs. For Nem, the intervention is “more of the same,” just another action for “electoral purposes.”

When talking about the violence in Rio, Nem pauses for a moment. Then he throws out a question: “Do you think that politicians don’t know how to solve the problem of violence?” A second later he answers his own question. “The problem is they know they will not be re-elected if they do. They know that this requires investment in education and social policies that do not have results in the short-term, but would come to fruition in the medium term, in ten or fifteen years. Their only concern is the term in office, they don’t want to resolve anything,” he says. For Nem, politicians with an eye on the vote bet on the same old combative approach: “police on the street and tougher sanctions on crime… But it has been proven so many times that none of this works. None of this has ever worked.”

So what is the solution? Nem da Rocinha’s position is rather unorthodox for someone whose business depended on illegal trade: “In addition to investing in education, if you want to end trafficking you need to legalize drugs. Want to take all the power away from the trafficker? Legalize,” he says, adding one caveat. “It’s no use just legalizing. We need to talk about it in schools. We need to teach children early on about drugs. It’s no use just saying ‘drugs are bad,’ ‘don’t use drugs.’ Young people are curious about drugs,” he says. Nem also mentions the revenue that the State could get from selling or collecting taxes from a legal drug trade as another justification for legalization.

Scapegoats, cocaine helicopter, and the PCC

With the memory of the game of chess fresh in his mind, Nem philosophizes. “When I was in Rocinha people saw me as a kind of king,” he says. “But I never behaved like a king, I always considered myself a pawn. I never wanted to flaunt myself, I walked through Rocinha wearing flip flops and a Flamengo soccer jersey. My focus was on helping people,” says Nem. He thinks a little and then goes on: “I did start wearing a chain, a watch, but nothing expensive.”

The metaphor of chess, with kings and pawns, also permeates his view of the drug trafficking machine. Nem considers himself, to some extent, wronged. Although he admits that he is “not a saint,” for him the authorities—”with the support of the mainstream media“—use the trafficker who is “black, poor and from the favela” as a scapegoat, when in fact they are only one part of a more complex machine. “What about the cocaine helicopter? Who was arrested? And the judge’s son?” he asks, referring to two recent episodes in Brazil involving white and middle-class traffickers. The first was the seizure, in 2013, of a helicopter belonging to the family of Senator Zezé Perrella (Brazilian Democratic Movement party—MDB), a close ally of presidential candidate Aécio Neves (Brazilian Social Democracy Party—PSDB), in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo with almost half a ton of cocaine. The second concerns the release (in record time) in 2017 of Breno Fernando Solon Borges, 38, the son of a judge, who was arrested with 130 kilos of marijuana and several restricted-use military ammunitions.

Indeed, Nem knows all about the role of politicians in drug trafficking. He admits to having spoken with some politicians in Rio de Janeiro, but refuses to give names. He also says that he has been contacted several times to sign a cooperation agreement with the authorities in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. Regarding a possible informer role, he is emphatic: “I intend to hold on to the minimum amount of dignity that I have left. I would never do something like that. Here we are not like [the seat of Brazil’s federal government] Brasília, where a guy would even betray his own mother.”

Although imprisoned more than six years ago, Nem has been following the political crisis that has engulfed Brazil. “I confess that in 2013, when those protests began for cheaper transportation, quality services, I was optimistic,” says Nem. “I wanted to be on the street too, you know? Marching alongside everyone.” But the ex-trafficker’s excitement has now given way to pessimism about the political landscape. “It’s sad to see that all the same people will be re-elected. It was all for nothing. These political elites all continue in power… [Lower House Speaker] Rodrigo Maia, [Senate Leader] Renan Calheiros, all these people will stay in power,” he says.

On the current president, Michel Temer (MDB), Nem is adamant: “He is a golpista, right?” [employing the term golpe or ‘coup’ used among those who believe Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment which put Temer in office was a coup]. “They ripped up the Constitution. ‘You have to keep it there,’” he says in reference to the recording of Temer’s alleged effort to buy the silence of former Lower House Speaker Eduardo Cunha. “It’s a joke. The guy [Temer] should be in jail, imagine how much money has been used to buy the support of the representatives and senators who supported the impeachment.” Nem also criticizes those who once supported Operation Car Wash and who now criticize it: “When they were just going after the Workers’ Party (PT) everyone supported it. Now that the investigation is looking into other parties a lot of people start to say ‘wait a minute!’”

Despite being pessimistic about the political landscape, Nem does not believe that the candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a congressional representative who longs for the days of the military dictatorship, will win the presidential election, though he is leading some opinion polls. “I don’t think Brazilians will do what the people did in the United States, elect a guy like Trump,” he says. The ex-trafficker says he has not voted for more than a decade, but if he could, his vote would be for former president Lula. “He did a lot for those who were most in need, for the poorest people. I was able to see the impact in Rocinha. People who worked for me came and asked me for permission to leave trafficking and go to work on the Growth Acceleration Program [investment projects],” Nem recalls.

Nem’s imprisonment has not kept his name out of the news. In February, Rio state authorities claimed he had joined the São Paulo gang Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), giving rise to a new group called the Terceiro Comando Puro 1533, with the numbers 1533 indicating the position of the letters PCC in the alphabet. “They say I was baptized by the PCC. How? Where? I spend 22 hours a day inside my cell. Even my conversations with my lawyer are video recorded. How could I have been baptized?” he asks. “The way things are, when you publish this story they will say that Nem is linked with the ETA [Basque separatist group in Spain]!” he jokes.

Despite denying being a member of the PCC, Nem says that the Sao Paulo gang’s business model is more efficient “and less violent” than that of the Rio factions. He mentions the thesis that is well-known in academia, which argued that the criminal group was responsible for a fall in homicides in the state by taking on a law-and-order role in the peripheries, running criminal courts. “Without the PCC São Paulo would have become an inferno. Who do you think ended the violence there? Was it the State?” he asks. Nem does not believe, however, that the faction would succeed in a possible incursion into Rio. “Things are different there. There are a lot of different interests, sometimes the situation is so messy that you can’t even call it organized crime.”

Another story involving Nem made headlines in September 2017, when the Rio favela was invaded by armed criminals after his girlfriend, Danúbia Rangel, was allegedly kicked out of Rocinha by Rogério. Officials said the order came from the prison in Porto Velho. “Everything that goes on in Rocinha, they blame it on me. When that happened I hadn’t had a visitor for ten days. How was I going to order an invasion?” he asks. On Rangel, who was arrested in October 2017, Nem regrets what he considers excessive “vanity” on the part of his girlfriend, who is famous for appearing on social media, partying, and even riding in a helicopter.

In addition to chess and soccer, played in the prison courtyard (Nem has contact with 12 other prisoners during yard time), the ex-trafficker also uses his time in jail to devote himself to reading: “The last books I read were The Prince, by Machiavelli, the biography of Catherine the Great, some John Grisham [legal thriller] books, and legal books.” He laments, however, that some books are censored. “I wanted to read Stalin’s biography, but it was not authorized by the prison command,” he says. In the Porto Velho prison, magazines and newspapers sent by relatives must pass through a screening process. Before EL PAÍS began its visit with Nem, prison guards handed over an edition of the Isto É magazine focused on the federal military intervention in Rio, which one of the prisoner’s relatives had brought, but which hadn’t previously been approved.

The book that tells his story, Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, by British journalist Misha Glenny, was not authorized either. “I must be the only person who has not been able to read his own biography,” he says. Once a month inmates are allowed to watch movies. “But the censorship is PG13,” Nem jokes. “We wanted to see that comedy ‘The Hangover,’ but it was not authorized. It’s just ‘Ants’ and down from there.”

“What would you have done in my place?”

Nem does not fit the stereotype of the criminal who repents his actions after his arrest. “Do I repent? Of course not. What parent would not do what I did to save the life of their daughter?” he asks, referring to the events that led him to leave his job as a team supervisor for the cable TV company NET and enter the world of trafficking. The year was 1999, and a lump the size of an egg began to grow on his daughter Eduarda’s neck when she was just 9 months old. Within a few months, both parents had to leave their jobs, spending all their time in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and diagnostic centers.

Their child’s health problem plunged the poor family living in a simple home in Rocinha into a spiral of medical debts that reached R$20,000. To pay the costs, Antônio Bonfim Lopes had to apply for a loan from the only business willing to lend money to an unemployed favela resident: drug trafficking. In order to pay off the debt, he put his managerial expertise into service for Luciano Barbosa da Silva, known as Lulu, Rocinha’s drug boss at the time and one of the leading figures of the Comando Vermelho (CV) criminal faction. “What would you have done in my place?”