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  • Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer by Robert Gay
  • Philip Evanson
Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer. By Robert Gay. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. Pp. 222. $89.95 cloth; $14.95 paper. doi:10.1017/tam.2017.172

This book completes a trilogy by sociologist Robert Gay on the rise and fall of democracy in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro from the l970s to the first decade of the [End Page 438] twenty-first century. Popular Organization and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro (1994) describes the rise of democracy in two favelas during the l970s and l980s as part of a wave of multi-class democratic activism that swept the 1964 military dictatorship out of power in 1985. Rio de Janeiro favelas were beneficiaries, but also contributed to the movement. The emergence of strong resident associations (RAs) in the favelas is an integral part of a story of democratic institution-building in Brazil during the 1970s and l980s.

However, a new illegal economy arising out of drug trafficking during the l980s led to the appearance of drug gangs, which took control of many Rio de Janeiro favelas by the early l990s. Lucia: Testimonies of a Brazilian Drug Dealer's Woman (2005) shows the resulting sharp decline in democracy in the favelas during those years. The state was not present in the favelas to defend democracy, thus the resident associations had no choice but to submit to the power of drug gangs.

The book under review adds another chapter to the story. Lucia, the subject of Gay's previous book, and Bruno live in the favela of Jakeira as partners in a stable union. The names are fictitious in an effort to protect their identities. Bruno spent eight years in several Rio de Janeiro prisons during the 1990s, after he was surprised and arrested by civil police while distilling ten kilos of freebase cocaine. Bruno's testimony shows how gangsters serving time in prison exercised power over favela communities. Prisons became the headquarters for leaders of Rio's three principal organized crime factions—the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), the Terceiro Comando (Third Command), and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends)—that controlled many favelas.

A barbaric, homicidal war among the factions went on inside the prisons, and outside, in the favelas. In this war, incarcerated faction leaders were able to send a steady flow of orders to favelas they controlled. Directors of prisons, always striving to avoid outbursts of violence by dissatisfied prisoners, could do little to interfere with such orders emanating from their prisons. Bruno also provides a detailed insider's view of the drug trade, including the structure of organized crime outside the favelas and within the prisons of Rio de Janeiro. The book never loses sight of favela realities, pointing out in its pages what is missing in the favelas. Sorely missing is the state and its authority, which includes the rule of law, or as Bruno puts it "warrants and procedures … that have to be respected. But not if you live in a favela, because [you're] in a favela, they [the police] come in shooting" (122).

Bruno, born in l967, identifies himself as a son in a large, poor rural family near Recife who worked on his father's farm and also for a jeweler in Recife. A chance meeting with a naval officer opened the prospect of a career in the Brazilian navy. Trained as a low-ranking corporal in Rio de Janeiro, he soon asked to be transferred to Corumbá on the border with Bolivia, where he was assigned to duty on a patrol boat. Moving from Recife to Rio de Janeiro, then from Rio de Janeiro to Corumbá, gave Bruno a stunning sense of the enormous dimensions of Brazil. He also quickly became aware of [End Page 439] drug trafficking and other smuggling activities on the loosely patrolled border, and he saw the opportunities for personal enrichment. He became in turn a drug runner, then a drug supplier, and finally a distiller of cocaine.

Gay finds that Bruno is astute and quick-thinking, and notes his intense awareness and interest in his surroundings. Bruno is inherently honest...


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pp. 438-440
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