As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across Brazil, organized crime gangs in Rio de Janeiro have stepped forward to enforce their own lockdowns in a bid to minimize damage to the city’s favelas or slums.
The move comes as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro faces a wave of criticism over his handling of the novel virus, which he has dismissed as a “little flu” and a “fantasy”—sparking demands from the left for his resignation as well as rumblings about a military plot to oust the notorious head of state.
Brazilian media have reported that gangsters have been circulating messages through WhatsApp and other platforms demanding that locals comply with an evening curfew or otherwise be taught a lesson in “respect” that they wouldn’t forget.
Brazilian digital newspaper G1 reports that one message read:
“Attention all residents of Rio das Pedras, Muzema and Tijuquinha! Curfew starting today 20 hours. Whoever is seen on the street after this time will learn to respect others!”
While a similar message read:
“We want the best for the population. If the government does not have the capacity to fix it, organized crime solves it.”
In the favelas, it's the crime gangs, not Bolsonaro's government, that enforce the lockdown (FT today) pic.twitter.com/di8JGpACOj
— Alexandre Afonso (@alexandreafonso) March 28, 2020
Extra also reported that in the western Rio-based Cidade de Deus, or “City of God”—the sprawling favela made famous in the 2002 blockbuster film of the same name—gangsters have been driving around issuing warnings to residents to obey the lockdown or face disciplinary measures.
One message said:
“We’re imposing a curfew because nobody is taking this seriously. Whoever is in the street screwing around or going for a walk will receive a corrective and serve as an example. Better to stay home doing nothing. The message has been given.”
Social media posts also show community organizations and civic associations conducting outreach activities in poor neighborhoods in hopes of raising awareness about the need to stay at home and be conscious of hygiene.
Quer Ajudar as Favelas do Rio a Mitigar os Efeitos do Covid-19? Aqui Está uma Lista de Pontos Comunitários de Doação https://t.co/h364dcTtRQ
Soluções das próprias comunidades garantem uma resposta direta, dinâmica e eficaz para responder à situação. Participe! pic.twitter.com/jN2gIdeT3C
— RioOnWatch.org (@RioOnWatch) March 28, 2020
The message comes as residents prepare for the pandemic to reach monstrous proportions in neglected urban zones where basic sanitation has been described by locals as “terrible.” Jefferson Maia, a 27-year-old resident of the City of God slum complex, told Reuters:
“Sometimes, we don’t even have water to wash our hands properly. We are very concerned with the coronavirus issue.”
Edmilson Migowski, an infectologist at Federal University in Rio, said that the favelas could become a hotbed for the virus in the coming days. He explained:
“The entry of coronavirus into denser, less planned and less culturally assisted areas could be devastating. Where water, soap and detergent are lacking, it will be difficult to stop the spread.”
In the meantime, Bolsonaro has been accused of recklessly denying the facts about the novel virus, even going so far as rebuking his own health minister’s appeal for social distancing on Sunday with the declaration: “We’ll all die one day.”
On Monday morning, a range of opposition figures and intellectuals published a statement in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper denouncing Bolsonaro’s irresponsible management of the crisis. The declaration, Brazil Cannot Be Destroyed By Bolsonaro, said:
“Brazil and the world are facing an emergency unprecedented in modern history … [and] in our country the emergency is exacerbated by an irresponsible president. Jair Bolsonaro is the greatest obstacle to urgent decisions being taken to reduce the spread of the infection [and] save lives.
Continuing, the statement read:
“Bolsonaro is in no position to keep governing Brazil … He commits crimes … lies and fosters chaos, taking advantage of the despair of our most vulnerable citizens.
We need unity and understanding to face up to the pandemic, not a president who goes against public health authorities and puts his authoritarian political interests above the lives of everyone else.
The statement concluded:
“Bolsonaro is more than a political problem – he has become a public health problem … He should resign.
He needs to be urgently contained and must answer for the crimes he is committing against our people.”