Christ and cocaine: Rio’s gangs of God mix faith and violence | Brazil

“Pastor, do you think we could hold a service at my house next Thursday?” the peroxide-haired mobster wondered, cradling an AK-47 in his lap as he took his place next to the man of God.

A few months earlier, the 23-year-old had bought his first home with the fruits of his illegal labor as an infantryman for one of Rio de Janeiro’s drug factions. Now he wanted to give thanks for the blessings he believed he had received from above.

“I have dodged death so many times. It was he who delivered me from evil,” the drug dealer said as he began another 12-hour night shift on the frontline of the conflict in the Brazilian city.

This Christian conviction found an echo all around the young outlaw, on walls adorned with frescoes in the Old City of Jerusalem and an excerpt from the Epistle to the Galatians: “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.

The gangster’s body also celebrated his religion. One wrist bore a tattoo of a cross and the words “Jesus lives”. The other carried the motto: “Let my courage be greater than my fear and my strength as great as my faith”.

“They know their world is a cutthroat, so they’re looking for something to believe in,” said Elias Santana, a favela-based preacher who has made it his mission to save the souls of growing gangsters. Rio evangelicals.

Pastor Elias Santana prays for one of the young gang members he is trying to steer away from a life of crime. Photography: Alan Lima/The Guardian

When Rio’s drug conflict erupted in the 1980s, Brazil’s evangelical revolution was still gaining momentum and many gangsters turned to Afro-Brazilian deities such as Ogum, the god of war, for protection. Drug bosses frequented Afro-Brazilian temples, built shrines in Orixás and wore necklaces to show their devotion to the Umbanda and Candomblé religions.

Four decades later, many of these shrines have been replaced by carvings of Bibles and murals of the Last Supper, as a new generation of born-again criminals rises to power, influenced by a brotherhood of Pentecostal preachers.

The grip of these pastors over Rio’s so-called “narco-Pentecostals” is unmistakable in the hundreds of favelas controlled by gunmen from its three main gangs: Red Command (CV), Friends of Friends (ADA) and, perhaps the most evangelical of all, the Pure Third Command (TCP).

Drug lords, some regular practitioners, have incorporated Christian symbols into their ultra-violent trade. Cocaine packets, handguns and uniforms are adorned with the Star of David – a reference to the Pentecostal belief that the return of Jews to Israel represents progress toward the Second Coming. Gang-commissioned graffiti offers spiritual guidance and heavenly praise.

A packet of cocaine stamped with the Star of David - a reference to the Pentecostal belief that the return of Jews to Israel represents progress towards the second coming
A packet of cocaine stamped with the Star of David. Photography: Alan Lima/The Guardian

On a recent evening, a seasoned trafficker broke into a service in suburban Rio, unarmed and unawares, while a preacher was reading the Book of John. “I came into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me remains in darkness.” Surrounded by neighborhood children and their smartly dressed parents, the mobster took a white plastic chair in the corner, lowered his head and began to pray.

Nowhere is Rio’s underworld evangelism more visible than the Complexo de Israel, a cluster of five favelas near the international airport ruled by Peixão (“Big Fish”), a preacher-turned-drug dealer who shoots his nickname of the ichthys “Jesus” fish. (The drug lord’s second-in-command is named after the Judean prophet Jeremiah, while their troops are known as the Army of the Living God).

In tribute to the boss of the district, a mural of the cartoon character Fishtronaut was painted at an entrance, framed by a verse from Psalm 33: “Blessed be the people whose God is the Eternal”.

A view of the Complexo de Israel, a cluster of favelas near Rio's international airport.
A view of the Complexo de Israel, a cluster of favelas near Rio’s international airport. Photography: Alan Lima/The Guardian

A neon Star of David, visible for miles at night, sits atop a water tower at one of the resort’s highest points. Nearby, on an outcrop looking south toward Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, a Bible sits in a glass case. “Save me, Lord, from wicked men,” reads its inscription, taken from Psalm 140. “Protect me from violent men who hatch diabolical plans in their hearts and stir up war daily.

Police call Peixão, who is wanted for dozens of crimes including torture, murder and death concealment, one of Rio’s most ambitious and authoritative villains, including the growing criminal empire makes fun of his so-called Christian faith. In 2019, he was accused of leading the Bonde de Jesus (Jesus Crew), a gun-toting gang of extremists who allegedly ransacked a succession of Afro-Brazilian temples. Afro-Brazilian celebrations were reportedly banned in the Israel Complex.

A drug dealer stands next to a mural of Psalm 18:
A drug dealer stands next to a mural of Psalm 18: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer.” Photography: Alan Lima/The Guardian

But some locals say the bling-averse gangster “doctrine” is steeped in the Bible – which includes keeping community streets tidy and well-lit, acts of charity to poor locals, discouraging swearing and drug use among gang members and a military-style emphasis on discipline – improved life in a ghetto long neglected by the state.

“There is order in the favela,” said Juju Rude, a local rapper whose songs describe life in a community ruled by God-fearing gangsters.

The Afro-Brazilian musician, who identifies as an evangelical Christian and has an Uzi tattooed on her stomach, said she was troubled by Rio’s rise in faith-related bigotry and violence. “It’s not cool to see people being prevented from practicing their faith where they live.”

Overall, however, she thought life had improved under the current favela administrator: “It’s new for everyone, an environment like this.

Juju Rude, a Brazilian rapper who lives in Complexo de Israel and whose songs depict life in a community ruled by God-fearing gangsters.
Juju Rude, a Brazilian rapper who lives in Complexo de Israel and whose songs depict life in a community ruled by God-fearing gangsters. Photography: Alan Lima/The Guardian

Rio narco-pentecostals admit that their often blunt line of work is at odds with the scriptures they profess to follow. As a top drug dealer in another gang-run area of ​​town lolled on a Honda motorbike surrounded by bodyguards with automatic rifles, he admitted drug dealing was a “malicious” business that sometimes resulted in horrific violence.

But the mobster claimed his faith inspired him to play down the barbarism, trying to persuade other criminals to spare those who cross paths with them. “Those I can save, I save,” he said, recalling how he once persuaded a colleague not to murder a trafficker who had stolen a gun and defected to a rival group.

Instead, the traitor was forced to clasp his hands together, as if in prayer, and fired at close range, shattering his metacarpal bones but preserving his life.

In another favela, an infantryman with a Bible tattooed on his chest told how much he enjoyed attending services at God is Love Pentecostal Church, a fundamentalist congregation with temples across the United States and Europe. “It makes me feel lighter,” he said, before riding off on his motorbike with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder.

Christina Vital, an academic who has spent nearly 30 years studying the advance of evangelism in Rio’s gangs, said it was inevitable that traffickers embraced Christianity given the jaw-dropping evangelical tsunami. breath that swept through Brazilian society during this period. Evangelicals now hold key positions in the underworld of crime, just as they have in media, politics, justice and culture, she said.

Drug dealers armed with guns listen to an evangelistic service outside a church on the outskirts of Rio
Drug dealers armed with guns listen to an evangelistic service outside a church on the outskirts of Rio. Photography: Alan Lima/The Guardian

Nor was it surprising that vulnerable and marginalized young men sought guidance and compassion from soul-searching preachers in Rio’s favelas: “It’s such a horrible, fragile life. They live in fear.

Vital said the consequences of the unlikely merger between crime and Christianity were unclear. There was evidence of “some containment” of the bloodshed, she said, but the mix of religious intolerance and “stunning” gang violence was unsettling.

Pastor Elias said he respects all religions and believes his godly crusade helps pacify a city where hundreds of mostly young black lives are lost each year. “It is the duty of Christianity: to save.

A week after being asked to bless the infantryman’s first house, the preacher donned a garish magenta shirt and headed down winding, muddy passages to the modest first-floor abode for which the criminal had paid 8,000 reais ( £1,000).

He slipped in, accompanied by half a dozen Bible-bearing helpers, and the group began to sing a hymn titled “Oh! Jesus loves me.” “Far from the Lord I have walked, down the path of horror. I have never asked about Jesus. sang as the mobster lowered his head.

Biblical graffiti in a Rio favela.
Biblical graffiti in a Rio favela. Photography: The Guardian

When the singing stopped, a female church member came forward and grabbed the host’s arm as her girlfriend and her mother – a cleaning lady who had just returned from work – looked on. . “God chose you. God is here right now! the woman told him. “Just look at my goosebumps!” God is here! she proclaimed, her voice trembling, invoking an angel to watch over the trafficker’s life.

After 20 minutes of prayer and a reading of Psalm 23, the trafficker thanked his visitors over hot dogs and led them outside, visibly moved by their words.

“It’s a lonely life,” the pastor said, “and Christ came to set them free from this bondage.”

A warm breeze passed through the narrow alleys of the favela and for a moment the world seemed at peace – but the calm lasted only two hours.

Shortly after midnight, the crackle of gunfire awoke residents, as traffickers stormed a nearby neighborhood in hopes of expanding their domain. Another night of chaos and heartache in a city crying out for rescue.

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