The Business of Drug Trafficking in Brazil’s Favelas

The Business of Drug Trafficking in Brazil’s Favelas

By Dialogo
December 31, 2015

I have another conclusion with regard to the security horizon:

The business of security in Rio de Janeiro has a pyramid structure, with a rigid hierarchy within several structures. To achieve higher efficiency, the organizations use several processes adapted from legal businesses with managerial methods specific to each organization. The recruiters find a universe of candidates full of human resources which are poor, in terrible condition and who operate within a space where ethics are relative, such that what matters is loyalty to the criminal faction or its leader. Very interesting article, which shows us Argentines the way, the consequences of erratic Argentine policies regarding preventing and repressing drug trafficking. Methods, efforts, equipment and above all awareness and motivation for its agencies and agents, in coordination with the Justice system, and international cooperation, above all with countries such as Brazil, who have taken to the fight seriously. For instance: Dr. Oscar Acevedo Crio, Inspector RAO, criminal lawyer. A curtain hiding the power of trafficking, breaking laws and defying society…read and see the power of trafficking and its evils…share to bear witness of your condemnation We have to intensify the fight against the production, distribution and use of drugs. If demand increases, fighting it gets ever more difficult. Therefore, the focus against drug addiction must be comprehensive. Decreasing trafficking and production must be carried out along with a reduction in drug use. As long as drug use continues, production and selling will continue. Of course, it’s not enough to reduce production and selling, but it is fundamental. In this sense, we have to carry out persuasive campaigns to promote contempt for drugs and for drug addicts, of course in addition to considering producers and traffickers the enemies of humankind, of youth and of the society at large. We have to make not taking drugs a worthy value. It more courageous and more manly to disdain drug use than to surrender to it. Using drugs is an act of moral and human cowardice. He who refuses to use is courageous, he who yields to temptation is cowardly. Even youthful values such as who is more macho and more masculine should be inverted.
The drug user or the one who has the courage to reject them? Masculinity is much more vigorous when one is better able to reject the temptation of drugs. Using drugs is for cowards or homosexuals because they are unable to say NO to what is evil and cowardly about using drugs in order to feel courageous. A courageous man does not use drugs to court a girl nor to challenge an adversary. Drugs and courage are enemies.
Great! Yes, this is what I wrote in this text and others. Search them. Thank you.

The popular imagination normally takes a simplistic view of the “business” that controls more than 1,000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. People normally presume that it is just young people carrying a bag of drugs in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. But it is not like that.

During the time I led the occupation of the Alemão and Penha favela complexes, I spent a lot of time studying the business of drug trafficking in Rio’s hillsides. In addition to my life as a native of Rio de Janeiro, I had my own, personal observations on the ground; I had read a wide range of scientific texts; and I interviewed subordinates, sociologists, local residents, police, informants, traffickers, ex-traffickers, and ex-convicts. My intent was to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of drug trafficking to combat it more successfully.

Traditionally called the Firm, the buying and selling of drugs in the favelas is a business with a capital “B,” which in turn is part of something much larger than itself. The main organized crime factions in Rio de Janeiro have similar management systems; they seek to adapt the most successful processes from traditional companies; and – as much as they can – they exploit loopholes in the law and in the culture of society. They always seek efficiency.

In general, they commonly have a rigid hierarchy, with well-defined leadership, and a great deal of respect for orders issued by leaders in prison. One example of this was when a wave of violent attacks was unleashed upon Rio de Janeiro in November 2010, culminating in the occupation of the Alemão Complex by the Brazilian Army.

Normally, one of the larger and more profitable favelas under the crime faction’s control is adopted as a sort of headquarters and the other communities come to be seen as sort of franchises. In this scenario, weapons, drug caches, and the so-called "soldiers" for drug traffickers can be some of the assistance rendered between the participants or their partners (in the communities).

These factions normally have institutional connections with other partners with whom they share a common interest, be it permanent or temporary. They generally prefer to remain discreet, sending more invoices and not calling the public’s attention to themselves, to keep the state from waging police operations against them to satisfy a public outcry. Partners in these connections can include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), other crime factions (domestic or international), political parties, terrorist organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The more profitable the favela’s drug business, the larger the Firm’s structure. The management processes used by these structures usually operate similarly to those of rival criminal factions. The primary factors in deciding how to structure the business are often the favela’s geography and human element.

There is no pretension that our work is finished here; we must still help people realize more fully what is happening in this environment where we can only see the tip of the iceberg. During our research, we were able to identify several processes that, in order to maintain efficiency and continuity of operations, would need certain functioning structures. We can visualize structures including staff, security, logistics, outsourcing of services, and commercialization of drugs, among others.


Each “favela capo,” like the CEO of any other company, likes to surround himself with trusted persons who are competent in the performance of their duties. Drug trafficking in the favelas functions as a business school that regularly accepts “students” at 6 or 7 years old. Over the years, they work in different positions and gain a more comprehensive notion of the business. This trusted group usually functions as staff for the local leader.

Oversight on the activities is performed by an accountant. It is not unusual to find specialized professionals with a university education in accounting or economics serving in this branch. An interesting quirk is that this segment does not usually use banks. They stockpile cash and precious metals in holes with false bottoms in strategic locations in the interior of the community under their command.

This is one of the reasons that encourages rival criminal factions to invade and conquer a favela. In the same way, corrupt members of law enforcement take advantage of incursion operations to sack those treasures. This is one of the main reasons that criminal factions even have heavy weaponry – that is, to protect themselves from invasion.

The accountants also oversee other lucrative activities. One of the management processes they developed that most caught my attention was the diversification of drug traffickers’ sources of revenue. Providing gas, water, cable TV, and transportation (motorcycle taxi, vans, and delivery trucks) are often held as monopolies by the favela capos. When this is not the case, those who legally run such services periodically have to pay a tax so their business can operate. Naturally, the fee is compulsory. I remember having a few experiences where we asked outside companies to provide those services in the interior, and all of them said they were not allowed to conduct business in that area.

Among the staff, it is common to find very well paid attorneys and/or legal advisors who work to impede arrests or make them difficult, guide depositions, or lead negotiations. They are normally persons with strategic connections who do not stay in the interior of the community, but they give out their cell phone numbers and make themselves available 24 hours a day.

We can see that there is always some sort of purchases and acquisitions section, primarily for drugs and weapons. This is a logistical activity that is directly tied to overseeing the supply of drugs, weapons, and ammunition. Diversification of the acquisition processes and the supply sources are geared towards guaranteeing continuity of operations, given that the business involves an extremely high-risk activity.

We also can identify persons working in the roles of social communications advisors or psychological operations. The goal is to gain the community’s support, recruit more people to work within the system, and demoralize the security forces and rival factions.

To increase the community’s acceptance of the organization and to recruit volunteers, the organizations conduct narco-populist activities where the “favela capos” try to present themselves as community benefactors, distributing medicine, building materials, and food.

Another activity is to sponsor funk dances and traditional parties, for holidays such as Christmas or Easter. At these events and within the communities, it is common to hear funk lyrics that glamorize drug trafficking and explicit sex. Normally, the organizations hire people to develop this musical genre, which has become like a calling card for several communities. It is also perfectly normal to find famous artists, athletes, bands, singers, and dance troupes participating in the festivities.

This propaganda war has even expanded to the Internet in a variety of ways, including social media. Videos glorifying drug trafficking are edited with sound tracks and images of police being shot, executions of traitors, and faction fraternizing while members are armed. An example of this is the “Iraque de Janeiro” series on YouTube, posted in 2011.

The graffiti on the community’s walls also reinforces the leaders’ popularity and indicates which criminal faction dominates that area at the time. The lack of government control over NGOs also provides a dangerous amount of influence and legitimizes activities and persons involved with crime and illegal activities. Sometimes, it even rises to the level of political connections and the election of drug trafficker’s allies.

A very important figure in the staff is the person in charge of bribing government personnel who could cause trouble for the Firm. This delicate and quiet process usually occurs by offering personal favors and money to police, politicians, informants, court officials, and other members of the system. When these procedures do not work, they start to apply pressure through threats to the targeted persons themselves or their families, until they capitulate or resign their position.

The preoccupation with security is one of the most notable activities in the business and, normally, the “favela capo” delegates this responsibility to his most trusted associate.

Area Security Command

The commander for this activity is a person who enjoys the “favela capo’s” absolute confidence. Normally, this “commander” plans escape routes from areas belonging to rival factions. In principle, a favela has two distinct systems that work hand in hand: Surveillance/Alert and Response Force. The names may vary, but this is the usual structure.

Normally, surveillance is performed by unarmed children and adolescents positioned in locations with an advantageous view to supervise access to the community. They are known as "spotters" or "falcons," depending on the place. Their methods of communications vary. To send a message or sound the alarm, they use older, rudimentary methods, such as messengers, flares, or colored kites launched into the sky.

With smartphones, traffickers send text, voice, or image messages. Meanwhile, the use of multi-channel talk-about radios remains the most common method of communication because it is the cheapest – you only need to recharge the batteries.

This activity in support of the surveillance system is customarily the point of entry for recruits and the beginning of a career within the drug-trafficking structure. In fact, children begin as messengers or being responsible for recharging and delivering batteries for radios and smartphones. Only after they demonstrate efficiency and commitment will they be entrusted with other tasks in the surveillance structure. Most of them dream of trading in their radios for rifles. Therefore, some of these youth temporarily interrupt their “careers” to join the Armed Forces, with a view at receiving Military training and then joining the ranks of the armed units.

Soldiers for the traffickers enjoy a certain glamour within the community. The status symbol is the firearm, which is displayed ostentatiously on the street and at funk dances. The bigger the weapon’s caliber, the higher the position within the hierarchy. This position is normally achieved through friendship, trust, and services rendered to the structure. These criminals receive good wages, are feared, and besieged by a significant contingent of young ladies looking for gifts and status. This symbiosis ends up being one of the biggest incentives for recruitment for impoverished youth. The payments to members of this structure are usually a fixed amount and occur weekly.

Basically, the soldiers’ work consists of protecting the favelas from invasion by rival factions and police operations. When they are unable to do this, they must be able to slow down the enemy so their leader and his staff can safely flee through escape routes that were identified and planned in advance. The spotters must sound the alarm in time for the Response Force to be effective.

Production Center

Depending on the security and size of the favela, this activity could be concentrated at one or more facilities. When various types of drugs arrive in the communities, they are not ready to be sold. Prior to their arrival, they are transported in several forms, such as pressed and water-proof tablets. Stock oversight is also a highly sensitive activity. Just one tablet of PBC (cocaine paste) weighing a kilogram costs around US$1,500 in Rio de Janeiro, and the profit margin is about 900 percent.

The next stage is processing the drugs by diluting them, mixing them with other compounds, and packaging them according to the amount to be sold. The persons who work in this activity are chosen for their trustworthiness, and they are accustomed to being subjected to rigorous checks on entering and exiting the workplace.

In some places, in order to increase productivity and reduce waste, each drug is assigned one day each week for processing. For example, on Mondays and Wednesdays, it is cocaine; on Tuesdays, it is marijuana; and so on. The most popular drugs are cocaine, marijuana, hashish and Ecstasy. Whenever possible, they avoid selling crack because the customers deteriorate too quickly.

Another procedure used in some of the structures is installing kitchen equipment. Using that equipment, the employees do not need to leave the workplace for meals, which improves oversight. The production center usually employs a significant number of persons who are paid according to how much they produce. Many of them work with masks and gloves to prevent poisoning.

Dealing drugs

Ordinarily, there is a “General Manager” for the area who appoints a manager for each drug. Each drug, in turn, has a vendor for each price point. For example, one person only sells 15 cocaine powder packages priced at 15 Brazilian reals (US$ 3.84) and someone else only sells 5 cocaine powder packages at 5 reals (US$ 1.28), and so on. There are rigorous controls, and the competition between vendors is fierce, because they all work on commission and submit their accounts regularly. This way, there may be more than one vendor and more than one drug assailing the addicts when they come to the points of sale. The number of points of sale also depends on the community’s size, geography, and security.

There also are “well-heeled” men. These intermediaries are usually people who have privileged access to places frequented by those with a good deal of purchasing power but are not willing to travel to the favelas to buy their drugs. These sites can be high schools, universities, VIP box seats at large events, parties, luxury condominiums, and other, similar places.

Outsourced activities

There are a variety of services that are necessary for the business to function well, but can be done by persons outside the organizational structure who are well paid for performing them. For example, people working at a point of drug sales with their manager, vendors, spotters, and soldiers working security all need logistical support. Food can be provided by the nearest restaurant/bar or by a local housewife, depending on what is convenient. Likewise, the scouting of restrooms to meet physiological demands may also be a paid service. There are other needs, too, like recharging radio and smartphone batteries. Transportation is another activity that can see motorcycle taxi drivers looking for clients at the entrance to the community, delivering drugs, delivering messages, or even transporting a member of the system.


The business of drug trafficking in the favelas has a pyramidal structure with a rigid hierarchy within various structures. To obtain greater efficiency, the organizations use various processes adapted from legal companies with forms of management that are specific to each organization. Recruiters find a candidate pool full of human resources that are impoverished, miserable, and that operate in an environment where ethics are relative, so that what matters is loyalty to the criminal faction or its leader.

*Commanded the pacification of the Rio de Janeiro favelas (2011-2012); Brazilian Army Special Forces; Master’s in Military Sciences.