Misha Glenny’s Nemesis is the story of an ordinary man who became the king of the largest slum in Rio, the head of a drug cartel and perhaps Brazil’s most wanted criminal. Read an extract from this tale of how change came to Brazil.
Vanessa dos Santos Benevides does not sleep. Her baby, Eduarda, looks smaller than her nine and a half months, and her wailing is incessant. Vanessa picks her up to comfort her and notices she is sweating more profusely than usual in this heat. The baby’s neck is rigid, bent inflexibly at an angle so that her head is resting on her left shoulder. In the morning, Vanessa tells her husband, Antônio, that she is taking the child to the doctor.
Eduarda starts a course of antibiotics, but her condition continues to worsen. She has lost her appetite, thereby further undermining her ability to beat whatever she is suffering from. For the first time, her parents realise that their little girl may be dying. In despair, Vanessa plays her last card. Thanks to Antônio’s modest health plan, sponsored by his employer, he is permitted to choose a GP from a supplied list. At random she picks out a name, an act she later ascribes to guidance from God.
The doctor’s surgery is in Barra de Tijuca, a residential area in Rio often compared to Miami in style and size since its rapid growth during the 1980s and 90s. Ten minutes’ drive through two long tunnels but a world away from the Rocinha, the favela Vanessa and Antônio live in, Barra is home to broad boulevards lined with dozens of elegant villas and American-style mansion blocks in gated communities. These are occasionally punctuated by shopping malls framed with gaudy neon signs and oversized billboards. The dramatic rise in urban violence around Rio during the two decades of Barra’s expansion explains the middle-class flight to this area. The mountains and lagoons that largely separate it from the rest of the city perhaps foster a greater sense of security.
The doctor examines Eduarda and says that she suspects this may be TB. However, as the treatment is not working, she refers the child to the Instituto Fernando Figueira, Rio’s specialist medical centre for children, adolescents and women. Here the doctors surprise Antônio and Vanessa by informing them that their daughter does not have TB. ‘We want to take a biopsy,’ one of them says. The next sentence shocks both parents into tears: ‘We think she may have cancer.’
The costs of Eduarda’s illness are mounting. Both parents are exhausted. The family face very serious decisions. Something has to be done about their bathroom: it will pose a threat to the baby’s health in the event that she returns alive but debilitated from hospital. The cost of the special catheter she requires to receive the medication and the refurbishment of the bathroom represents more than a year’s salary, and Antônio has no savings left. Meanwhile, he has to take over the bedside vigil during the day to allow Vanessa some rest.
He knows just one man who is not only able to lend him the money but might actually be willing to do so. To most of the favela, and indeed the outside world, he is known as Lulu. For the last two years he has been the undisputed Don of Rocinha. He runs the drugs trade. This competes with the suppliers of gas and electricity as the most successful business in the favela. Lulu’s is a cash-rich industry. He hands out loans, usually to residents who want to purchase their own apartment. This serves a dual purpose. The practice boosts the local economy, served either poorly or not at all by the state and more legitimate financial institutions. It also recycles the profits from the drugs trade, which are, of course, otherwise subject to legal constraints.
Without funds, Antônio thinks long and hard about his next step. He has never engaged with drugs, never taken them, and has no intention of doing so. He is revolted by the associated violence, which has been a backdrop to his life. None of his childhood friends are in the business. They are all, like him, workers – taxi drivers, builders, waiters. But he sees no way out of his financial predicament. He does not discuss his plan with anyone, not even with Vanessa. This is something he has decided to do alone.
Antônio asks a friend who is in touch with Lulu to arrange a meeting. It is two days before his twenty-fourth birthday when, with trepidation, he starts the long walk uphill on Estrada da Gávea. The roughest area of the favela is almost at the very top. This is Rua Um, Rocinha’s ultimate lookout post. Here you can see everyone entering and everyone leaving. This is where Rocinha’s most powerful man, boss of the favela’s drugs trade, has his office.
Antônio begins his longest walk with his friend. Nervous but determined, he turns over in his head how to phrase his request and what to offer in return. He is Faust seeking out Mephistopheles. But Antônio craves neither unlimited knowledge nor worldly pleasures. He only wants his daughter to survive, grow and prosper. He senses that his life is about to change and that things may not end well. But in his mind, he challenges anyone who would point the finger of blame at him: ‘And what would you do in my place?’
There is a sharp bend near the very top of Estrada da Gávea by a small marketplace. This is the start of Rua Um. Although a key thoroughfare, it can still only really accommodate people in single file, and a wheelbarrow can trigger a pedestrian traffic jam. Antônio walks down it, past the bars and the tiny grocery stores, then the fishmonger to the right and the butcher to the left, avoiding the dog shit, rotting fruit and sewers, until Rua Um forks.
Take a right and the path soon swings round towards the south-west along the sheer side of the Two Brothers mountain, eventually reaching the commercial district at the bottom – and normality.
Take a left and you cross into the traditional stronghold of the drugs trade. Men, women and children may appear to be dozing or chatting idly, but most are observing strangers heading towards Lulu’s office. Word of their progress is being passed up the line so that Lulu’s security is ready to receive them in whichever way they consider appropriate – either with resolute armed hostility or with apparent indifference. If you don’t live or work at the top end of Rua Um, you usually need a good reason to be hanging out there.
Antônio turns left. But the security detail is not suspicious in his case, because his friend is familiar to them. By the time he gets to the top, he is slightly out of breath and still nervous. He has taken a long time to reach the decision to walk up Rua Um, but now he is set on going through with it.
Antônio comes to the end of his long walk up the steepest hill. Arriving at his destination, he enters by the front door. Never in his twenty-four years has he envisaged a change to his life so fundamental as this pilgrimage will trigger.
Lulu is admired throughout Rocinha, but few have ever seen him. Indeed, even some of the people who work for him have never met him. A kid maybe ten years Antônio’s junior and with a semi-automatic slung across his chest shows him to Lulu’s office.
After twenty minutes or so, Lulu enters the room, smiling, accompanied by three gun-toting ‘soldiers’, although he himself is unarmed. He is thin and slight, with dark hair and a small moustache on a bony face, but most noticeable of all is the absence of menace. The Don of the Hill is more Wizard of Oz than Corleone. He is also, at the age of twenty-two, almost three years younger than Antônio.
Lulu greets his visitor warmly and asks him why he has sought this audience. Antônio tells him the story of his daughter, Eduarda, and how he can no longer afford the treatment and his everyday expenses. ‘My daughter will die if I do nothing,’ he explains.
Lulu hears him out without saying a word. At the end of the story, he is brisk.
‘How much do you need?’
‘In order to pay for the treatment, restore the bathroom and meet our daily requirements – about twenty thousand reals.’
Without hesitation Lulu says, ‘I think we can manage that,’ and waves at one of his minions, who disappears into the interior of the three-bedroom apartment.
The question of repayment settles on the living room as thick as the fog that sometimes rolls in from the Atlantic. As Lulu seeks to clear the air, Antônio blurts out, ‘I will come and work for you. It is the only way I can ever meet this debt.’ Lulu appears surprised but says nothing. The minion returns and counts out the cash. Antônio takes the money and shakes Lulu’s hand.
Extract taken from Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio by Misha Glenny (Bodley Head) which is out now.