Guns, drugs and Jesus
‘I control 15 communities,” boasted the druglord as his shiny 4x4 hurtled through the narrow backstreets of western Rio de Janeiro.
Behind the wheel was Juarez Mendes da Silva (28), better known by the nickname Spiderman.
The words ‘Jesus” and ‘Christ” were tattooed on his forearms in black.
In the boot his pet dog, Bloodsucker, shared space with an M-16 assault rifle.
With the dashboard’s clock marking 2am, the car careered through the Complexo da Coreia, one of the city’s largest and most notorious slums, home to about 60 000 Brazilians and the headquarters of one of the city’s three main drug factions, the Pure Third Command.
What would happen if we ran into the police?
‘They would open fire,” Spiderman replied bluntly, his mouth half full of pink sweets. Welcome to the inner sanctums of a murky underworld of murder and mayhem rarely seen by outsiders.
Spiderman was conducting a guided tour of the sprawling slum where he was born and where he is now in charge of the area’s lucrative drug trade and the leader of a 200-strong private militia of heavily armed young men.
‘The lives we lead—we know they aren’t right,” he said, stuttering, pulling up outside a local sweet shop to stock up on candy. ‘But we’re not knocking on anyone’s door to sell them anything. Those who want drugs buy them. We don’t sell them to children.”
How did he come to control such a large area?
‘It’s God!” he replied, without hesitation. Last month Rio exploded in celebrations after being awarded the 2016 Olympic games.
But just two weeks later the capital was rattled by a new wave of urban violence after a police helicopter was shot down during a turf war between traffickers, killing three officers.
The ensuing clashes between police and drug gangs took the body count to nearly 50. One local non-governmental organisation, the Observatorio de Favelas, estimates that there will be another 40 000 homicides in Rio state before 2016.
At least 6 000 people will be killed ‘resisting arrest” and more than 500 policemen are also likely to die. Dozens of innocent civilians will be killed in the crossfire.
With the state still largely restricted to sporadic police operations, a small army of evangelical preachers is left to pick up the pieces. Each week they drag young, bloodied men away from the drug traffickers and into their churches and mediate informal truces between warring factions.
‘The police have to invest in bulletproof vehicles and rifles to get into these places,” said Dione dos Santos, Spiderman’s local preacher, who has convinced the druglord to spare those who break his rules, as he set out on another late-night preaching mission at a drug den in another large slum.
‘We go in with the Bible and the word of God.”
The contact between evangelical preachers and Rio’s gang members is spawning a new generation of evangelical traffickers—men who paint their communities with passages from the Bible and tattoo psalms on their bodies, but fall silent when you ask them about the Fifth Commandment; men who burn their enemies in makeshift cemeteries or hack their bodies apart with axes, but who also plaster signs around their slums’ playgrounds reading: ‘Don’t smoke marijuana here, or you will be ‘charged’.”
‘The favela I control has the word of God everywhere,” claimed Marcio da Silva Lima, a drug kingpin better known as Tola and one of Rio’s three most-wanted men.
Tola, who controls Vila Alianca, the slum next to Spiderman’s, said the evangelicals had helped to reduce violence in the slum he controls by rescuing those who broke the traffickers’ rules: don’t rob, don’t rape, don’t talk.
‘Now of every 100 [who cross us], 99 survive,” said Tola, who has equipped his foot soldiers not just with weapons but with black baseball caps bearing the phrase: ‘God Exists”.
‘A grenade exploded on me and I’m still alive. I got shot six times with a 762 assault rifle and I’m still alive. My AK-47 went off in my mouth and I’m still alive. God wants me alive. If it wasn’t for God I would be dead,” he said.
‘All the kids here need to study, not to kill and sell drugs. Because today I know—even with God protecting me—the risk I run of dying.”
Rio’s drug factions began to take root in the city’s slums in the 1980s, partly as a result of hard-line drug policies introduced by the United States, which many believe forced the drug trade from North to South America.
The following decade saw an influx of heavy weapons into the slums and the murder rate soared. Today there are more than 5 000 murders in Rio state each year.
Rio’s Olympic victory is seen as a major chance to revive the city’s fortunes and some analysts believe the tide is starting to turn, however slowly.
The past 12 months have seen drug traffickers expelled from five of Rio’s 1 000-odd slums after a permanent occupation by military police.
Recent weeks have seen police commanders and security authorities handing out presents to children in the slums as part of a hearts-and-minds campaign to convince locals that the police are preferable to the traffickers.
This week Rio state’s governors announced plans to extend ‘pacification projects” to another 37 slums, including the Complexo da Coreia and Vila Alianca.
But most are still controlled by druglords whose faces are normally seen only on wanted posters or in grim trophy shots taken after police have killed them.
The druglords are often seen as wealthy mafiosi, surrounded by fast cars, beautiful women and stacks of money.
But travel into their territories, lives and homes and it becomes clear that Rio’s underworld is a place of solitude, paranoia and relentless violence.
‘I know one day I’ll have to pay for what I’ve done—whether that means one year, 10 years or 30 years,” said Tola, as he sat on the porch of his family home on Rio’s western outskirts.
Outside three male bodyguards loitered in the shadows, their hands gripped tightly around assault rifles.
‘This is no kind of life,” Tola went on, his baggy shorts revealing a badly mutilated left leg, the result of a shoot-out. ‘I’ll never tell my son to pick up a rifle.”
But the violence goes on. ‘Next week it could be me,” said Jacyr Ferreira dos Santos, a member of the civil police drug squad, weeping.
Ferreira was sitting on a curb in one of Rio’s most violent slums after witnessing his colleague’s skull being shattered by a high-calibre rifle shot.
‘We shoot and get shot at ... and then we go home. And they stay here, killing. So why do we come here?”
Back in the Complexo da Coreia, Spiderman’s softly spoken mother, Maria, looked elsewhere for answers. ‘Only Jesus [can protect my son],” she said.
On the wall behind her was a mural that Spiderman commissioned from a local artist, with the words from Psalm 91, verse seven. ‘A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.”
Six months later, on Friday March 13 this year, Spiderman was dead—killed in a hail of bullets by Rio’s military police. —