In telling the story of Bruno, sociologist Robert Gay succeeds in demystifying not only gangs and the drug trade but also an entire country. This is a carefully crafted study of a criminal career embedded in a society that for generations has denied citizenship to large numbers of its population.
Bruno was not always a bad boy. Born into rural poverty, he joined the navy to see the world, and found himself stationed on the waterways that form part of Brazil’s 10,500-mile frontier that rubs shoulders with every country in South America other than Chile and Ecuador. It was on the border with Bolivia that the enterprising young sailor found himself working side by side with other lowly matelots who were being richly rewarded for allowing some boats to pass in the night, while others were apprehended and plundered before their crews were allowed to continue minus their cargoes of cocaine.
With the Brazilian air force licensed to shoot down aircraft suspected of bringing in cocaine, the vast frontier waterways assumed a strategic importance as Brazil became a vital hub of global transhipment, as well as developing its own huge internal market. Bruno became a courier supplying this burgeoning demand in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. A trip from the border with 10kg of coke rewarded the $300-a-month sailor with $10,000, and Bruno quickly moved up a few rungs of the ladder to become a drug entrepreneur, investing his newfound riches in property, as well as in the obligatory hedonistic lifestyle.
His almost inevitable arrest triggered involvement with the prison gangs that have a symbiotic relationship with life and death in the favelas. Bruno found himself aligned with the Rio-based Comando Vermelho, which, in response to the fetid corruption of the prison system, dominated every aspect of his existence during his eight years behind bars. Eventually, using his strength of personality rather than violence, Bruno became a Comando Vermelho prison leader.
Gay shows Bruno to be a slippery character, revelling in his ability to manipulate both violent convicts and prison authorities, and with attitudes to women that remove any likelihood of the South American branch of the Howard League making him “redemptive con of the year”. Tunnels were dug; gruesome murders frequently occurred, often prompted by unsubstantiated rumours originating in the favelas. But Bruno did get results: as leader of the prison community he improved general conditions by negotiating basic needs such as mattresses and exercise, and he also managed to thwart the authorities’ systematic theft of food that had degraded the diet of the prison population. With killings temporally suspended, and conditions and diet improved, Bruno’s reign was successful until internecine warfare in the favelas dictated that violence was once again on the agenda, with the leader an obvious target. A hasty transfer resulted in the final years of his incarceration being spent as a lowly con nervously avoiding murderous turf wars.
This is an important book that skilfully utilises ethnographic interviews to tell the story of one man in the trenches of the global war against drugs. Fought on local terrains defined by poverty, exclusion and racism, these battlegrounds can be found wherever US-led drug prohibitions have left a footprint. Although few of the casualties or walking wounded will display the sheer chutzpah of this boy from Brazil, many will continue to risk their all for a slice of the cake. As Bruno told Gay: “Because before I felt excluded, and now I was part of everything, understand?”
Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer
By Robert Gay
Duke University Press, 232pp, £61.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780822358411 and 8497
Published 10 April 2015