The Rocinha Power Struggle

Home to some 100,000 people, Rocinha is one of the most famous and largest favela or slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Homicidal violence is increasing in the favela with a vengeance of gun battles out in the streets between gangs and the Brazilian military. The military has now taken siege of the favela, in hopes to bringing the turf wars between gangs under control. Ongoing violence on the streets has brought some troubling concern to heads of state and impactful international organizations, who have worked over the years to decrease corruption, murder rates, and create an economically stable country. These concurring events and power struggle between drug related gangs could foreshadow a dangerous downfall of Rio which could be sinking back into its quagmire of violence, and instability as it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. The war on drugs continues to play a powerful driving factor in the violent struggle between Rio’s most powerful drug gangs, the Comando Vermelho (CV) or the Red command and Brazil’s largest organized crime syndicate, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) or the First Capital Command, and the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) or Friends of Friends.

Each faction controls a specific part within the favelas as well in middle- class areas, with graffiti of gang symbols drawn in the cities to identify which faction is in control at the moment. In 2011, the ringleader of the ADA–Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, known by the alias “Nem”–was jailed but continued to operate the largest cocaine trade by proxy, leading to conflict between the top figures within this gang, and the rise of challenging rival factions, who questioned Nem’s leadership and how long he would be able to maintain a stronghold over the cocaine trade. Nem’s second-in-command Rogério 157, as known within the favelas has moved to pledge his allegiance to the CV, while the CV gang has also indicated that Rogério supporters within the ADA would be more than welcomed to join their faction. Some are calling it a coup against Nem, since the CV is aiming to grow their influence in the favela, ever since the winter of 2015 when the FARC, a Colombian cartel, began dealing less cocaine throughout South America. But this is not without phasing challenges from ascending, up-and-coming gangs such as the PCC, who are rapidly seizing influence in the region.

Prisons holding both PCC and CV supporters have led to a stark rise in violence and mortality in the local and federal criminal justice systems. Until this point the PCC had remained neutral into who would take control of Rocinha, since they already control most of the drug trade within the five states of Brazil. But now the PCC is aiming to take control of the main cocaine supply to Rio by diminishing the control of the CV: this is a proper low-level war that is currently taking place inside Brazil with tactical and strategic aims aplenty, with the PCC attempting to draw in new partners to solidify its own power base while simultaneously weakening its rival.


The appointment of the new Brazilian Secretary of State for Security in 2016, brought the Pacification Police Units (UPP) to a new low, because although the objective of the administration was to flush out the drug gangs from the favelas and deploy a significant police presence to these territories; the reality is that the gangs have seized greater territorial control and widespread influence, and that local police often escape confrontation or practice corruption. The gangs are aware that making relationships with the local law enforcement through bribes, although costly, correlates to a lessened chance of prosecution and retribution.

Before corruption scandals by the police units began to break, units were imprisoning anyone and anything related to drugs, increasing the amount of prisoners in the system by 160 percent since the year 2000. Historically, violence in the prisons followed demands for improved prison conditions, but now the rupture of the longstanding truce between the PCC and the CV over ADA territory and increasing influence in region has left hundreds of prisoners dead over the years. This could be primarily due to the fact that Brazil’s state prisons are under indirect purview of drugs gangs and organized crime. Most prisons are divvied up among competing gangs, while the government has only minimal control. “Experts describe drug factions as a parallel state. Gangs have long recruited their rank and file from prisons and organize trafficking and racketeering” from the walls of the prisons, such as in the case of Nem, although he denies connection to any outside crime through proxies. There is a reflection of what is seen on the inside of prison walls, and what is seen on the streets. Brazil has a concerning criminal justice conundrum that fails to eradicate gang violence. Brutal conditions prisoners face are barely liveable; penitentiaries are mostly always filled to capacity, due to police crackdowns, only increasing gang recruitment from within the prison. According to the Justice Department, Brazil houses about 650,00 prisoners in just about 300,000 spaces, with the population continuing steady growth.

Gun downs on the streets of the favela between gangs has recently worsened, with the Brazilian military having set curfew and increased pat downs for its residents aiming to imprison most drug related criminals, in hopes of decreasing all criminal activity. Most officers monitoring the favelas favor heavy-handed sentences over rehabilitation and other lessened arrangements. The leading cause of imprisonment are minor drug offenses, although there are laws that recommend non-violent crimes should not lead people into the prison system. The war on drugs in Rio is not the answer. Research has found that 70 percent of inmates who are released find their way back into the system because of the duties they carried out under their gang, the gang that had once recruited them in prison. It is imperative that in order to stabilize the conflict, the military work and strategize to rehabilitate minor drug offenders back into society, and put less minor offenders in prison.

Gangs would soon have few inmates to recruit in the prisons. Through positive reform, criminals would then be put to work in the favelas where they’d be redirecting their energy to building better infrastructure for their community. Favelas’ workforce has proven to become most creative, resourceful, and hardworking people,many of whom have often fallen into drug trade only because of the lack of government benefits they now receive and little opportunities open to them that would allow them to make just as much money as their gang related jobs.

From the cities to the prisons of Brazil, the country’s ongoing corruption has stemmed from top government officials, who make it apparent that the lack of oversight by government agencies has allowed criminal organizations to grow. The Brazilian Presidential election of 2018 will prove critical to the future stability of the country and justice system, with the President possessing the ability to appoint officials to confront with corruption, prison reform, government benefits, and the gang crisis. Currently, the lack of public investment, and a hands-off tradition in criminal justice driven by governmental policy has led the favelas to produce a culture of creative survival.


About Stephanie Hernandez

Stephanie Hernandez is a sophomore in the School of International Service, focusing on Latin American, Peace, Global Security, and Conflict Resolution. She is passionate about bringing about awareness to issues that do not often get covered my mainstream media. As a Hispanic woman, she aims to share a unique perspective with her readers.