King of the hill of Rocinha: new book, Nemesis, by Misha Glenny


Last Mother’s Day in Complexo do Alemão: a mom recounts the tragic loss of her son

You might think this blogger’s long silence is due to so much bad news — economic recession, political impasse, widening corruption scandals. It’s true, there’s not much to say –beyond dismay — except to express the belief that socioeconomic change of the last decade will have lasting positive effects, that, despite leaps and lags, democracy is deepening. But the real reason for the silence is focused work on a book about greater Rio.

The focus includes reading books, and the silence must be broken to recommend (in addition to Juliana Barbassa’s Dancing with the Devil in the City of GodNemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, currently available only in the UK. There is also, for those who read Portuguese, Luiz Eduardo Soares’ Rio de Janeiro: Histórias de Vida e Morte, a striking collection of dark experiences that this longtime public safety expert and former official has put down on paper.

Nem –Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes — is in jail now, far away from his territory, Rocinha favela, home to about 100,000. Misha Glenny, a British journalist (and friend of this blogger) who’s previously written about cyber security, global organized crime and the Balkan region took it upon himself to pay the drug “don”, as he calls him, quite a few visits, in a maximum security penitentiary in the state of Mato Grosso.

What Glenny extracted from such unusual conversations and an enormous amount of additional research (including time spent living in Rocinha) is a unique portrait of how the drug business and the War on Drugs affect life in Rio de Janeiro, in and outside of favelas. Anyone attempting to come to grips with the metropolis, particularly those charged with covering the 2016 Olympic Games here, should read this new book, set to come out early next year in the U.S. and Brazil.

Glenny’s experience prepared him to connect dots that few have done. He tells how cocaine and violence descended on Rio, explains the origins of the local gangs, charts the relationships among them and with the police, and describes the outlier rituals of the Rocinha favela. All this is then contextualized within broader Brazilian history and, most important, connected to the up- and downhill story of one intelligent man drawn into the business — and the violence — because his daughter had a rare, expensive illness.

It’s a book that for this reader, proves our urgent need to decriminalize drugs and further integrate Brazilian cities and society. Nem’s story, and that of so many young men and women, must not be repeated.

And now, while Brasília debates how to save politicians, back to work.

P.S. if you haven’t seen The Second Mother, do.

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to King of the hill of Rocinha: new book, Nemesis, by Misha Glenny

  1. Eduardo says:

    Great entry Julia. I am simply at a loss for words with all that is going on in Brazil. Learning that a few people I respected and held dear as great hope for police had fallen to corruption has left me heartbroken. I am not as optimistic as I was. The country is in a deepening sinkhole and I do not see how it can recover in the short term.

    • shotw2arrows says:

      Eduardo, Brazil can’t recover in the short term and perhaps it shouldn’t. Yes, I wish the pain of unemployment and the threat of greater unemployment might disappear. But remember that even during the heyday of the Lula years, corruption was going on. Lula is one of my heroes but I can’t forgive him for saying, “Mensalão, what Mensalão? I don’t think there was one.” That’s not facing painful reality. It takes courage to face reality. Brazilian have courage, the older ones have been through all this many times. They will pull through the pain. (I am shielded from the pain by my USA pension.) But when Brazil eventually comes through, the corruption may still be there and all this will repeat further down the line. I hope all people of good will do what they can, though only Brazilians can solve their problems.

  2. Monika says:

    I am reading this book on Nem by Misha Glenn and I must admit that I absolutely share your opinion on its value. Amazingly clear and thorough view of Brazilian problems with drugs and violence. Very well written and researched.

  3. gshowell says:

    Thanks for the heads up, Did you look at Erika Robb Larkins’ Spectacular Favela?


  4. shotw2arrows says:

    Welcome back Julia. I hope you will give us a sneak preview of your projected work. Assume it’s non-fiction but not a memoir like your last book, Solteira no Rio. (Which I am enjoying and seem to be extracting a moral from, likely not one intended by the author.) Your new book will be about Greater Rio, but I would like to know what facets you intend to examine.

    I look forward to reading the book about Nem. I wish someone would do interviews with another man I believe is currently is prison, or at least I hope soon will be — José Dirceu. What a life that man has lived and how much we would gain by understanding it! (I will allow those interested who don’t know Dirceu’s story to Google it)

    I have the suspicion that politics in Brazil tends to reward the corrupt with success and punish the honest with failure or the crumbs of success. Many a good man has gone bad or at least become complicit with wrong. We must learn how this situation came to be and how it can be changed.

    An ocean of fascinating things about Rio awaits our research and everything we can help one another to understand tends to the common good.

  5. shotw2arrows says:

    The trailer for The Second Mother made me dubious about seeing the movie. I feared the movie might be like some “manufactured” Brazilian novelas (soap operas), which are fabricated according to the following scheme:

    A team of writers take an issue being talked about in Brazil such as homosexuality, crime, or social inequality. They craft a plot that will disturb almost no one; in fact, almost everyone will feel in step with things, modern, and enlightened. But the treatment is stock, cliché-ridden, sentimental, and superficial. Most soaps in the US follow an identical pattern.

    What is that pattern and what’s wrong with it? The root problem seems to be, in order to be popular, a novela must have a happy ending. And it can’t be disturbing or challenging. If a soap deals with the contacts between very high and very low status individuals, it must be comforting to both classes because both classes will watch it.

    But since Julia recommended A Second Mother, I saw it. I’m glad I did.

    First, the basic cinematography of the movie – music, acting, visual effects, costume design, pace, etc. — is far superior to that of the usual soap.

    For example, in the movie we see a section of the home where the movie is set, with no one in the scene. The scene lasts perhaps ten seconds, in silence. What is the scene? Just a corridor leading to a bare stairway with closed doors on either side of the corridor. This is a scene that one would never see in a novela.

    Second, the characters are not stock. Here I must give a short summary of the characters and plot, being careful not to give away the denouement.

    A mother of low social rank, Val, must leave her daughter Jessica in northern Brazil to work as a live-in housemaid for a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Though Val is separated from the father of Jessica, the move is due to merciless economic necessity, not choice: Val must earn more to properly raise her daughter.

    The wealthy family consists of father Carlos, mother Barbara and young son Fabinho. The first scene shows Val, soon after moving to her new job, playing second mother to the child Fabinho around the family’s swimming pool. This first scene is apt: clearly Fabinho replaces the lost child Jessica in Val’s heart. The pool remains important throughout the movie.

    More than a decade passes. Val learns that her daughter is coming to Sao Paulo to take an academic exam that will determine Jessica’s future. She arranges that Jessica lodge initially in the home of her wealthy employers. The drama is set.

    Each character is finely etched. I thought the best acting was done by the father Carlos and the mother Barbara.

    Carlos certainly is not a stock upper class Brazilian. With his white beard and balding grey head, he resembles Lenin, but perhaps Lenin after the latter had suffered his stoke. He is a weakened ineffective Lenin and his thick dark eyeglasses, almost shabby informal dress, thin frame, and reticent manner heighten this impression.

    I must apologize to the reader for not being very proficient in understanding colloquial Portuguese. As I was able to gather, Carlos is from a wealthy family; he once painted but now he does not.

    His wife Barbara, on the other hand, is quite active and ambitious. I could not ascertain exactly what she did – I would be grateful to anyone who could inform me – but it was important enough for her to be interviewed on camera. She is working, in some capacity, within Rio’s fashionable elite. Overweight but striving to be slim, she seems to be fairly bursting in her chic attire as she attends to her avant-garde guests. Very fine casting and acting.

    Though there are no stormy family scenes as one sees in soap operas, the sense of tension within the wealthy family is heavy, almost unnerving. The first time Carlos smiles is when Jessica is introduced.

    Jessica is at first awkward in her inferior position in the household and perhaps a little ashamed of her mother. The friendly attentions of Carlos flatter her but do not please Barbara. An easygoing relationship develops between the attractive teenage son Fabinho and Jessica. Clearly, Fabinho is closer to his second mother Val than he is to his natural mother Barbara. Perhaps even father and son are put at odds by their own respective attractions – not necessarily sexual – to Jessica.

    So the cast of five is like a pentagon enclosing a five-pointed star – every individual is related to every other. The drama is heightened by the fact that Fabinho is also going to take an academic test that will determine his rank in society.

    For me, the movie is about STATUS, HUMANITY and how the drive to STATUS can cause the loss of HUMANITY. I must define the two terms, status and humanity

    First, status is what we all want. Status is simply rank in society but it can come in the form of money or some other badge of distinction. You can be rich or be a duke, a movie star, a renowned scholar, or, in some parts of the world, simply have white skin.

    Brazil is moving toward a meritocracy. The other day, at the college near where I live, I saw boots on the ground. Yes, troops were stationed outside the college because the academic tests were being given in the college. The tests determine what college you can enter – and entrance is the first step to higher status.

    One dictionary definition of “humanity” is “humaneness, benevolence”. In my use of the word I mean those things, but also spontaneity, the ability to giggle, guffaw, or blush without premeditation; to live in the moment without regard to future rewards of status.

    To interact socially is a spontaneous human trait. But one can gain status by making the right social connections. Thus we see status seekers cultivating their spontaneous human charm. Barbara and her circle smile at the right times.

    I include also in humanity LOVE OF LEARNING. Humans are born to explore and learn. Once must ask: do competitive academic tests foster love of learning or the drive toward status?

    Finally, humans are born to play. Every child is born an artist, to one degree or another. Perhaps the attraction between Carlos and Jessica lies more in their common love of learning and art rather than sexuality. Jessica and Fabinho find common ground in youthful exuberance and horseplay.

    In this movie, you will see the working out of these various conflicts between status and humanity.

    We have a maid who cleans our apartment weekly. I have never lived in a home so clean. You could eat on the floor after she has scrubbed it. She is in her 60’s, unmarried, and could not earn more than R$2000 per month. I don’t know if she is scheduled for a pension but her prospects in life do not appear brilliant. She comes from a distant favela still dominated by violence; she has lost a child to violence and recently a son died of illness.

    She seems intelligent to me. Her origins were very humble; with better opportunities she might have gone far. Yet she is not at all envious of me. If fact, I would say she is happier than me. At least she is almost always smiling and affectionate, especially with children.

    I consider A Second Mother well worth seeing. I believe it will be showing in Rio until November 5th.

  6. Rio real says:

    fantastic review. thanks so much for posting it here!

    • shotw2arrows says:

      Thank you Julia. Must admit I am having personal problems and writing review was a sort of therapy for me — I hope I can contribute in some way. I am 90% through Solteira, Portuguese version, and will soon give you my take on it. The book is making me think about things!

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