The drug trade in Rio de Janeiro is directly connected to three major criminal gangs within the city: Comando Vermelho (CV), Terceiro Comando (TC), and Amigos dos Amigos (AA).
Everything indicates that drug trafficking started in Rio in 1980s when some favela residents began to sell cocaine. As if by magic, those who were poor became rich and powerful. Over the years, drug trafficking has become a common routine. More and more people were attracted by the benefits associated with it, such as money, power, and recognition. Today, the lack of security and fear make it so that anyone connected to the drug trade will hardly ever set foot outside the favela. They know that the path of illegal drug trade often leads to prison or death.
The life of the drug trafficker is a vicious cycle. Lack of opportunity and a chance to earn money often leads to involvement with a criminal gang. The attraction begins at a young age when children are seduced by the drug dealers’ motorcycles, money, and girlfriends.
Many children enter the drug trade without even noticing. They get involved with people linked to the crime, deliver messages inside the favela, and eventually become known as what dealers call “aviõezinhos” (little messengers). This is the first level in the hierarchy of the drug trade. Once inside, it is difficult to escape. Drug trafficking generates an addiction similar to that of a drug user. The power, recognition, privileged information, hierarchy, rules, and fear of death are hard to give up.
Many children grow up in that environment until they become teenagers. Adolescence is a difficult phase in every social class. It is the time when teens develop their identity, begin to learn who they are, and for a teenager born into a lower-class, who lives in a racist and elitist society, everything becomes harder. They feel ignored, invisible and often rejected. Drug trafficking ends up filling this gap, and gives value to these young people, including them in a group where they are noticed and respected. The teenager becomes the protagonist, provoking a reaction in people, becoming visible. For many, entry into the drug trade is a desperate attempt to build an identity.
These young people live with the reality of the drug trade and learn the rules within this system. After being “aviõezinhos”, they grow-up and take on new positions, they become “fogueteiros” (lookouts). They stay on top of the favela and set off fireworks when police are in sight. They are the traffickers’ scouts.
The next step is to work inside the “boca de fumo” (place where drugs are sold), assisting the manager. Thus, they experience the day-to-day life of trafficking, earn lots of money, and begin to gain respect within the group. When the head gets killed, one of these boys takes over selling the drugs and becomes completely involved in trafficking. Many do not get to be at the head, because they are killed in clashes with police or rival factions. If they manage to escape the shootouts, they sometimes end up being killed in disputes within their own gang.
The hierarchy network is well respected within the drug gangs. The rules are dictated by the routine and don’t need to be written down to be obeyed. The head of the area is the big boss and controls an entire network of “employees”, each with their own responsibilities. Everyone knows that the rules need to be obeyed to avoid expulsion or death.
In the absence of a government presence, the drug gangs are the greatest power within the favelas. It is up to them to not only resolve disputes and punish crimes, but also to provide the necessities of everyday life, organize funk parties or implement improvements. The drug gangs lure the population by offering benefits to the community. Residents end up turning to traffickers for help in solving serious problems.
Today, there is less money to be earned in the drug trade. Insecurity within the favela, fighting between rival gangs, and bribes that must be paid to corrupt police officers have decreased the profits of drug gangs.
A study by the Ministry of Finance of the State of Rio de Janeiro in December 2008 estimated that the drug trade in Rio (marijuana, cocaine, and crack) generates between R$ 316 and R$ 633 million per year, but profits around R$130 million. Expenses are high and include supply logistics, self-protection, and losses from police apprehension. It is estimated that between R$ 121 to R$ 218 million are spent per year to replace weapons and purchase products.
Over time trafficking has also become more dangerous. Criminal gangs now have large supplies of weapons. They are increasingly more violent, and rivalry between them leads to constant fighting. The struggle for power and control of the area has claimed many victims and terrified residents.
The community’s population lives in fear of violence, the rules imposed by drug gangs, stray bullets, and constant shootouts. Rules imposed by drug gangs cause residents to change their routines. These are basic rules for survival in communities run by criminal gangs.