The pandemic, social isolation and government on the margins: notes from the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro
Edson Miagusko (UFFRJ) and Jonathan W.B. Da Motta (UNICAMP)
Like elsewhere in the world, Brazil remains under the coronavirus pandemic. With 2.7% of the world’s population, the country accounts for 10% of all COVID-19 deaths. The number of cases is currently on the rise, surpassing the period in the first half of 2020 when the number of daily deaths peaked, which may be associated with the new variants of the virus that started to circulate at the end of the year. Vaccination, which started in January 2021 and remains limited to health professionals and vulnerable groups, is progressing slowly, unable to contain the rapid spread of cases.
The pandemic in Brazil has placed social isolation policies at the center of social and political conflicts, going beyond their health dimension. The adoption of these policies walked the fine line between measures necessary to prevent the collapse of the health system, and the long-term closure of commercial and service sectors, which would demand broader economic measures to make quarantine possible, especially for low-income populations.
The impacts of measures taken by state governments also unfolded and reverberated in how the urban margins viewed, interpreted and governed the pandemic. The West Zone of Rio de Janeiro is one of the territories that allows us to understand how the urban margins faced – and continue to face – COVID-19. It is from this viewpoint, from this peripheral and popular region of the city of Rio de Janeiro, that we will seek to understand the pandemic and how, in the absence of a more effective health policy for disease control, different “governments” acted on the urban margins.
Social isolation in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro: militias and drug trafficking regulating the pandemic in the territory
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most unequal cities in Brazil. The city’s composition highlights this characteristic: massive skyscrapers and sophisticated urban equipment coexist with slums and peripheries marked by the absence of adequate urban infrastructure. Recently, the city has gone through a cycle of mega sporting events – the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics – which modified part of its urban infrastructure, while reinforcing its socio-economic and spatial inequalities. A large amount of resources was dedicated to specific areas of the city that were profitable for big capital. In the context of such mega-events, an important initiative also took place in the field of public security: the favela pacification policy. Only 25% of the state’s more than 1000 favelas were contemplated with this project; most of them located in the richest regions of the city and with the most tourism potential – notably the South, North and Central Zones.
So, the city that was already unequal, became more unequal with the so-called mega-events cycle. The West Zone of Rio de Janeiro is characterized, on the one hand, by the Barra da Tijuca region – an “island” of development and economic dynamism that houses an emerging upper middle class – and, on the other hand, by other regions of the West Zone made up of middle-class, lower-middle, and poor areas. As it is predominantly a region of workers and small entrepreneurs, this region was directly affected by the impacts of the pandemic.
The problem of social isolation is one of the main issues of the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro. In addition to the conditions that do not enforce compliance with restrictive measures, different modes of government have restricted or allowed circulation in the territories according to their immediate economic interests or different moralities.
We chose the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro as a site for observation where different types of organized crime – namely, militias and drug trafficking – regulate the daily lives of its residents. Many poor territories in Rio de Janeiro are controlled by criminal organizations, where gangs of drug traffickers dispute areas of the city with each other and with paramilitary groups known as militias. These groups are very diverse internally and amongst each other, with different models of government in each territoriality. For over 20 years, Rio’s drug trafficking has been divided in three factions – Comando Vermelho (CV), Amigo dos Amigos (ADA) and Terceiro Comando Puro (TCP) –, which has led to armed conflicts over time. Spread mainly across the West Zone and Baixada Fluminense region, the militias are a by-product of the death squads and the state agents who associated with organized crime through the sale of protection and services such as gas, cable TV, transportation and real estate regulation. Their profound ties with state agents facilitate their impunity.
In March 2020, the Rio state government and the city of Rio de Janeiro kicked-off social isolation policies. Between polarizations and ambiguities, the initial months of COVID-19 were marked by apprehension and uncertainty. State, population and criminal organizations were not sure of what to do or how to act. Groups of drug traffickers and paramilitaries imposed a “curfew” in specific places of the city, while pressing for the forced opening of local commerce in others, contrary to sanitary guidelines.
The paramilitary groups, in general, had two modes of action in the West Zone: in regions such as Rio das Pedras – birthplace of the militias –, militiamen directed a curfew after 8 pm with the aim of reducing agglomerations, but without coercion, since nobody was punished in case of transgression. Militias from other locations in the West Zone, such as Praça Seca, Muzema and Itanhangá, continued to extort residents and commercial actors, even during the period of meager earnings and scarce demand for labour that resulted from the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. The criminals forced bars to stay open, contrary to the social isolation policies of the Rio de Janeiro government, so that they could charge a security fee of these businesses – an amount that started from 50 BRL per week, and could reach up to 300 BRL per week, in places such as Praça Seca. In the central part of Campo Grande, the most populous neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, social isolation has been very precarious since the beginning of the pandemic. Even though it was one of the places most affected by the virus, the disregard for containment policies was evident. A symptomatic case was when a TV station broadcasted live as a municipality drone asked people to vacate the streets and go home, drawing laughter and crowds to the neighborhood “boardwalk”.
This area is controlled by a militia that acts discretely and silently, maintaining deep relations with the local military police battalion and with politicians from different parties. During the pandemic, this group did not exercise any form of health-related control, in contrast to other areas controlled by the militia, such as Rio das Pedras, where a curfew was in place. In fact, they saw this scenario as an opportunity to make a profit by taking bribes from bar owners to sidestep government restrictions and keep their businesses open.
During the lockdown period, many bars in Campo Grande chose to close their doors, and many people avoided crowding these places for fear of fines, which were considerably high for a period of economic scarcity. But it was still possible to see some bars open, thanks to an ingenious corruption scheme between police officers involved with the militia and their networks. To be able to function during lockdown, some bar owners paid a certain amount of money to a police officer (who was also a militiaman) so that he could intervene in case of inspection. If the municipality went to the establishment to fine or close it, this policeman resorted to his network of contacts and managed to argue in favor of the business owner, who did not receive any punishment from the state. That way, the bar owner stayed open in spite of prohibition, the militia profited, and the virus spread.
The drug trafficking gangs in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro forced the populations under their domains to wear protective masks and avoid agglomerations. Even a curfew was imposed by criminals in some favelas, such as Acari, Cidade de Deus, Rocinha, Vila Vintém, among others. There was fear, on the one hand, of the disease affecting the illicit drug trade – the main economic activity of these organization. On the other hand, traffickers are unable to obtain medical help if they get ill, since they cannot circulate outside the favela so as not to be arrested. This fear caused drug trafficking in different places of Rio de Janeiro to impose more restrictions, even though these actions were limited and punctual – only perceived at the start of the pandemic and later relaxed.
In the Vila Vintém favela, in March 2020, everything seemed normal. Workers were coming and going, children played in the streets, and people walked the streets without worry. Even though we were already under measures of social isolation and receiving more information on the lethality of the virus through the press, the daily life of the community was not affected by the new scenario. In the following month, with the increase in the number of people infected and killed in the state, things started to change slowly. The laid-back and relaxed landscape gave way to timid apprehension.
At the end of April, an indefinite suspension of the traditional baile funk (party) and a curfew were decreed by drug traffickers in order to prevent crowds. Many residents understood that such attitudes were based on an increase in the number of infected people in the favela. The curfew itself was not understood by people as an imposition, but rather an orientation, a way of raising awareness regarding the disease. So much so that resident adherence was low and transgressions were not punished at first. The “boredom” of adapting to health-related safety norms was replaced by the dangerous search for forms of leisure, even if it contradicted the explicit guidelines by traffickers in the area.
Without the baile funk, some residents started looking for ways to have fun in bars and party venues in the favela. In the month of May, the height of the pandemic in Brazil, many residents started to gather in a bar known as Bar do Guri. On a given day, in the same month, a photo of this bar – with more than 300 people huddled together and mask-less – went viral on social media as a symbol of disrespect for the rules of social isolation in Rio’s West Zone. This situation caused a deep discomfort between the residents and the criminals, who had already asked residents to avoid crowding in the favela. After what happened, the traffickers closed the bar with chains and padlocks, showing the population their strength to arbitrate over the territory. The bar owner did not suffer any physical or violent retaliation, but the bar was closed without any financial compensation.
The traffickers’ orders against gatherings in bars and party venues showed a sanitary concern with the community spaces of the favela, since bars are public places that can bring people together very quickly and organically. After the fact, residents started to respect the norm imposed by criminal actors and avoided interactions in public places, choosing to gather at home instead – an attitude that was not restrained by traffickers, since it concerned a private space. This form of control lasted until mid-July when traffickers started to turn a blind eye to the gatherings, allowing the opening of bars and making the use of face masks optional inside the favela.
The territorial control dimension of the pandemic was reinforced by social isolation policies to contain the spread of the virus and prevent the increase in deaths, severe cases, and the collapse of health systems.
The dispute for a narrative about fighting the pandemic, the sanitary measures to contain the disease and its economic consequences were at the center of the clash between the federal, state and city governments. This conflict between state governments demanded a certain level of territorial regulation by different modes of government on the margins, both from an economic perspective and from the moral viewpoints that shaped the restrictions or flexibilities imposed locally. In some cases, state impositions did not count with the cooperation of residents, who refused to comply with these determinations.
The cases of militia and drug trafficking organizations in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro, which imposed restrictions and forced the quarantine to be lifted, demonstrate how much the government on the margins – locally obeyed due to their regulatory force over territories – has acted in spite of state governments.