Rio de Janeiro’s criminal groups have, from time to time, attracted international attention. The news of their anti-coronavirus measures has made international headlines once more. Drug-dealing gangs have forcibly imposed curfews on the city’s population, against the backdrop of perceived state inaction in managing the spread of COVID-19.
This blog takes a closer look at the gangs’ anti-pandemic measures by tracking social media content. Using Twitter as an observational lens, the timing, rhetoric, and substance of the gangs’ actions will be explored. The commentary aims to provide insights into the discourse of criminal governance in Rio at the time of COVID-19.
Twitter was selected as the central platform of this study as it is host to numerous gang-affiliated profiles, whilst presenting more accessible information than WhatsApp. The latter is highly popular in Brazil, with several networks allowing unlimited access to subscribers; “messaging apps” have been reported to be a primary means of communication of the gangs’ anti-coronavirus measures. Lacking access to relevant groups, however, Twitter profiles are the best publicly available proxy, as they are likely to relate communications relatively soon after – if not at the same time as – they are shared on WhatsApp.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Brazil was reported on 27 February in São Paulo; the first case in Rio emerged on 5 March. By 12 March, Rio’s health authorities confirmed the first local case of community transmission. The following day, Rio Governor Wilson Witzel enacted a first official anti-pandemic measure: the suspension of school activities and the closing of cinema and theatres. On 17 March, Witzel followed this up by banning all public gatherings, decreasing public transport, and recommending the closure of malls alongside social distancing regulations in bars, cafes and restaurants. This was happening while Witzel traded blows with Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, who criticised the lockdown measures as harmful to the economy.
It is in this context of relatively mild COVID-19 measures and infighting between states and federal government that first suggestions of a gang-enforced curfew emerged on Twitter. These measures were first articulated in jest on 12 March, with reference to São Paulo’s Primeiro Comando da Capital group, before rapidly gaining popularity around 17 March with more frequent associations to the Comando Vermelho (Red Command, CV), Rio’s largest gang alliance. The below image, tweeted by the account @RjPlantao, which mainly shares news about violent events and police operations in Rio, captures the mood at the time.
The text reads: “will it be necessary for the Red Command to start the curfew? People do not respect the government!”. Strikingly, this sentiment was not limited to gang-related accounts. Rather, its widespread use signals a general mistrust in the state’s ability to enforce harsh measures on the population, as well as the public’s lack of respect for the measures and the government itself.
At first glance, criminal groups appeared to have taken more limited – but still consequential – measures: these mainly consisted of the cancellation of large parties popularly known as baile funks. The importance of baile funk for Rio’s drug-dealing gangs is well-established in academic literature (see Sneed 2007, 2008) as well as by numerous journalist reports. Through these events, gangs are able to display their power in a symbolic and material manner (for example by exhibiting weapons), while providing a fundamental boost to drug sales.
Cancelling bailes was thus a major decision for the gangs to adopt, although with relatively minor consequences on the population at large. Baile cancellations were first announced on 17 March, as illustrated in the examples of Morro do Sapo, Complexo do Anaia, Complexo do Alemão, and Complexo da Pedreira. The fact that these favelas were controlled by gangs affiliated to rival alliances – with Pedreira affiliated to Terceiro Comando Puro (Pure Third Command, TCP) and all the others to CV – shows that this decision did not seem to follow factional lines. Location also seemed to have little influence, as Sapo and Anaia are located in Duque de Caxias and São Gonçalo, outside Rio proper.
On 22 March, as Cidade de Deus cancelled its baile, the first announcements of gang-enforced curfews began to gain widespread attention on Twitter. On that day, news outlets were reporting 24 suspected cases of COVID-19 in Rio’s favelas. At 1:53pm (UK time), @gbdospredio – a CV-affiliated account apparently tweeting from Manguinhos – was the first to tweet the image below.
The text reads: “The Red Command informs: Stay at home people, this stuff is getting serious and there are people who think this is a joke. Brasília’s corrupt people [politicians in the country’s capital] told people not to leave their houses, but some are playing deaf to that. Now you are going to stay at home one way or the other. Curfew every day from 8pm, those who will be caught in the streets will learn how to respect others. We want the best for the population, if the government is not able to come up with a solution organised crime will.”
It is important to highlight that this announcement does not automatically mean that a curfew was effectively imposed in Manguinhos, or in all CV-affiliated favelas. It is equally crucial to note that this warning did not necessarily come from the gang alliance’s leadership, nor had it been ‘approved’ by the latter or any other criminal hierarchy. There are hints that this message was circulated earlier than 22 March. A day earlier, the same text was tweeted by a minor gang-affiliated account, @rc_taliba, suggesting that the content is likely to have been making the rounds on WhatsApp and other messaging services before arriving on Twitter.
Its importance, however, lies in the language used – and in its adoption and diffusion. The message emphasises common assumptions on the corruption of the Brazilian political establishment – entrenched since the early days of the Car Wash anti-corruption investigation – as well as the government’s alleged inability to find solutions to the current crisis. Rather than citing the gangs’ ‘social care’ duty towards local residents, the message adopts a more repressive rhetoric, threatening enforcement of the curfew against those who resist conforming to its instructions. Although it is difficult to assess how consequential this warning was, the fact that it was shared by other CV-affiliated platforms suggests that its message resonated with ongoing local gang discourse. An additional reason for the message’s wide diffusion could be that it offered drug-dealing gangs with the opportunity to reaffirm their entrenched territorial control – a peculiar phenomenon that sets Rio apart from other urban contexts within Brazil. Within three hours of @gbdospredio’s tweet, the image above was tweeted by three CV-affiliated accounts: @DuComandoo (89 retweets), @RodoCv22 (1.5k retweets), and @PAPODOCV (684 retweets).
A similar measure that emerged on Twitter over the same period concerned price gouging. On 23 March, a CV-affiliated account, @paznob13, tweeted the message below, which was quickly and widely shared, with 113 retweets in less than three hours.
The text reads: “WARNING! We inform the owners of pharmacies, supermarkets or any type of shop that from today we will not accept exploitative prices in our community. You always depended on our residents, today they depend on you and WE will fight for them. Signed: the kids [slang term for gang members born and raised in the favela]”.
Interestingly, the text of this message was then copied in several other tweets by gang profiles with both CV and TCP affiliation, with minimal changes (the signature often became gestão inteligente, “smart management”).
From this quick overview, we can observe several important insights in the timing, discourse, and substance of the gangs’ anti-pandemic measures. Far from preceding government action, they accompanied and followed it, first with limited measures – the cancellation of bailes – and then with more severe evening curfews. These moves found fertile ground in an environment seeded with mistrust towards the government and the population’s ability to comply with lockdown measures.
Gang actions sourced their efficacy in the long-standing and entrenched territorial control exercised by these groups, rather than – for example – in the provision of goods. Gang discourse itself seemingly emphasised the need to use force to ensure compliance as well as the groups’ role in defence of local residents. These observations can provide more nuance in the current debate regarding criminal governance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrea Varsori is a co-coordinator of the Urban Violence Research Network. He has successfully defended his PhD thesis in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His doctoral research seeks to explain the extraordinary resilience of Rio de Janeiro’s drug-dealing gangs by correlating changes over time with increased survival chances. You can follow him on Twitter at @Andrea_Varsori.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.
Banner image Creative Commons by Dany13 via Flickr.