Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 22: Rio’s Gangs Impose Curfews in Response to Coronavirus
John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia da Cruz and Robert J. Bunker
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and fears of the spread of the coronavirus through Rio de Janeiro’s densely populated favelas local gangs (gangues) and militias (milícias) are imposing social controls in the form of curfews to limit the spread of the disease. The Red Command (Comando Vermelho) gang is specifically mentioned in this context with numerous reports discussing their imposition of a coronavirus curfew in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela while the role of other gangs and militias is suggested in the reportage.
Cidade de Deus (City of God) Favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Public Domain) Photographer Junius, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cidade_de_Deus.jpg
Key Information: Andres Schipani and Bryan Harris, “Drug gangs in Brazil’s favelas enforce coronavirus lockdown.” Financial Times. 26 March 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/aaef1591-2fc5-4e6f-ab84-0e83b5a146ca?segmentId=114a04fe-353d-37db-f705-204c9a0a157b:
The messages first arrived via WhatsApp. Stay home or else.
It was a stark warning to the residents of Brazil’s densely populated slums — but not one delivered by federal government, health officials or even state police.
With president Jair Bolsonaro dismissing the pandemic as “sniffles” and criticising regional lockdown measures, the country’s drug gangs and paramilitary groups have stepped in to enforce social distancing to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Key Information: Caio Barretto Briso and Tom Phillips, “Brazil gangs impose strict curfews to slow coronavirus spread.” The Guardian. 25 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/brazil-rio-gangs-coronavirus:
Drug traffickers in one of Rio de Janeiro’s best-known favelas have imposed a coronavirus curfew, amid growing fears over the impact the virus could have on some of Brazil’s poorest citizens…
…in an apparent attempt to prevent further infections the Red Command gang leaders who control the favela have ordered residents to stay at home.
A video apparently recorded in the City of God circulated on social media this week showing a loudspeaker broadcasting the alert: “Anyone found messing or walking around outside will be punished.”
Key Information: “Coronavírus: traficantes e milicianos impõem toque de recolher em comunidades do Rio.” G1, O Globo. 23 March 2020, https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/2020/03/23/coronavirus-traficantes-e-milicianos-impoem-toque-de-recolher-em-comunidades-do-rio.ghtml:
Indo além das medidas tomas pelo estado, recado enviado pelas redes sociais nas comunidades de Rio das Pedras, Muzema e Tijuquinha, na Zona Oeste do Rio, orienta que a população não saia das ruas a partir das 20h.
“Atenção todos os moradores de Rio das Pedras, Muzema e Tijuquinha!!! Toque de recolher a partir de hoje 20:00 hrs. Quem for visto na rua após este horário vai aprender a respeitar o próximo!!!”.
Já em outra publicação, a nota ordena o toque de recolher todos os dias, no mesmo horário, e diz:
“Queremos o melhor para população. Se o governo não tem capacidade de dar um jeito, o crime organizado resolve”.
Key Information: Agência O Globo, “Coronavírus: tráfico e milícia ordenam toque de recolher em favelas do Rio.” Úlitimo Segundo. 24 March 2020, https://ultimosegundo.ig.com.br/brasil/2020-03-24/coronavirus-trafico-e-milicia-ordenam-toque-de-recolher-em-favelas-do-rio.html:
e estabeleceram toques de recolher em favelas após a confirmação de casos de infecções de em comunidades do . Os criminosos também fazem ameaças a moradores que forem flagrados circulando pelas após às 20h. Na , na Zona Oeste, primeira comunidade do Rio a ter um caso confirmado, os traficantes circularam pela favela com um alto-falante durante a tarde de ontem.
Key Information: Ricardo Moraes, Debora Moreira, and Rodrigo Viga Gaier, “Gangs call curfews as coronavirus hits Rio favelas.” Reuters. 24 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-brazil-favelas-fea/gangs-call-curfews-as-coronavirus-hits-rio-favelas-idUSKBN21B3EV:
City of God, a sprawling complex of slums made famous in a hit 2002 movie of the same name, registered the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Rio’s favelas over the weekend.
Now, with the state government woefully underfunded and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro widely criticized for a slow response to the outbreak, criminal gangs that have long held sway across Rio’s favelas are taking their own precautions against the virus, according to residents and press reports.
According to well-sourced Rio newspaper Extra, City of God gangsters have been driving round the slum, blaring out a recorded message to residents.
“We’re imposing a curfew because nobody is taking this seriously,” the message said, according to Extra’s Tuesday story. “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.”
Third Generation Gang Analysis
The social impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic is challenging both states and criminal enterprises worldwide. The imposition of curfews and social controls by territorial gangs poses unique challenges to governance and pandemic response. This type of alternate governance also poses challenges to state solvency as the gangs and militias (criminal armed groups or CAGs) compete with the state for legitimacy and the provision of social goods. This provision of ‘utilitarian social goods’ can contribute limited public health and safety but can also be used by the imposing CAGs to alter the allocation of power among the state and criminal rivals to their advantage. The competition between state and criminal enterprises (including criminal insurgents) is a facet of state transition as discussed by Tilly, Sullivan, Bunker, and Kilcullen.
The gangs—in this case Rio’s Comando Vermhelo—are acting in the manner of social bandits as describes by Hobsbawn and later by Sullivan in the context of criminal insurgents. That is the gangs seek relative power and legitimacy in order to secure enterprises community support and freedom of movement. Previous CAGs (criminal cartels) providing humanitarian aid have been documented in Mexico. More recently, the Gulf Cartel and Los Viagras have been reported to be providing humanitarian food distribution to communities challenged by the pandemic. In El Salvador gangs are also regulating social movement—including enforced social distancing—to limit the spread of the coronavirus and exert territorial control.
The Red Command (Comando Vermelho) flyer originally appearing on WhatsApp. [Gang Social Media]. Reposted by TROPA DO CV @proibidoparar, 22 March 2020, https://twitter.com/proibidoparar/status/1241868747637391362/photo/1
The COVID-19 outbreak poses many challenges in the favelas (and other urban settings). As Robert Muggah recently told The New Humanitarian, “In some cases, aid agencies are also required to work with, or alongside, non-state providers, including armed groups. For example, in some Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexican cities organised crime and self-defence groups are engaged in social service provision, raising complex questions for aid providers about whether and how to support vulnerable communities.”
These vulnerable populations—living in slums and favelas—are often deprived basic lifelines like adequate potable water supply, sewage, and public services like policing. The gangs and CAGs often fill the void in governance and in collusion with corrupt public officials provide access to services. This demands public accountability and engaging in humanitarian negotiations and diplomacy by aid providers with the CAGs (gangs, cartels, and militias). Brazilian public health authorities seeing the gravity of the situation are initiating humanitarian negotiations with organized crime leaders:
O governo federal prepara uma estratégia de combate ao novo coronavírus nas favelas brasileiras que buscará amparo de lideranças ligadas ao crime organizado. Segundo o ministro da Saúde, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a pasta está disposta a dialogar com chefes do tráfico e de milícias para conseguir apoio às medidas de isolamento.
“A saúde dialoga, sim, com o tráfico, com a milícia, porque também são seres humanos e precisam colaborar, ajudar, participar. Então, neste momento, quando a gente faz esse tipo de colocação, a gente deixa claro que todo mundo vai colaborar (no combate à covid-19)”, disse o ministro durante coletiva de imprensa nesta quarta-feira, 8 [April] 
The interaction between CAGs—criminal cartels, gangs, militias, and mafias—is complex and historically has varied by time and place. Crises like global pandemics can potentially change these dynamics as seen in the case of COVID-19 in Brazil’s favelas (and elsewhere). Terrorists, rebels, and insurgents (both political and criminal) are likely to exploit the pandemic to further their goals. States are also likely to seek to build upon humanitarian initiatives as a means of stabilizing communities and reducing criminal violence. The success of these efforts—for all participants—remains to be seen. As the pandemic matures, these interactions are likely to provide new data points and case studies for evaluation.
Agência O Globo, “Coronavírus: tráfico e milícia ordenam toque de recolher em favelas do Rio.” Úlitimo Segundo. 24 March 2020, https://ultimosegundo.ig.com.br/brasil/2020-03-24/coronavirus-trafico-e-milicia-ordenam-toque-de-recolher-em-favelas-do-rio.html.
Parker Asmann. “What Does Coronavirus Mean for Criminal Governance in Latin America?” InSight Crime. 31 March 2020, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/criminal-governance-latin-america-coronavirus/.
Caio Barretto Briso and Tom Phillips, “Brazil gangs impose strict curfews to slow coronavirus spread.” The Guardian. 25 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/brazil-rio-gangs-coronavirus.
“Coronavírus: traficantes e milicianos impõem toque de recolher em comunidades do Rio.” G1, O Globo. 23 March 2020, https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/2020/03/23/coronavirus-traficantes-e-milicianos-impoem-toque-de-recolher-em-comunidades-do-rio.ghtml.
Steven Eisenhammer, “Mistrustful of state, Brazil slum hires own doctors to fight virus.” Reuters. 2 April 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-brazil-favela-feat/mistrustful-of-state-brazil-slum-hires-own-doctors-to-fight-virus-idUSKBN21L08Y?il=0.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, “How COVID-19 is changing law enforcement practices by police and criminal groups.” Brookings. 7 April 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/04/07/how-covid-19-is-changing-law-enforcement-practices-by-police-and-by-criminal-groups/.
Vanda Felbab-Brown and Paul Wise, “When pandemics come to slums.” Brookings. 6 April 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/04/06/when-pandemics-come-to-slums/.
Ricardo Moraes, Debora Moreira, and Rodrigo Viga Gaier, “Gangs call curfews as coronavirus hits Rio favelas.” Reuters. 24 March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-brazil-favelas-fea/gangs-call-curfews-as-coronavirus-hits-rio-favelas-idUSKBN21B3EV.
Andres Schipani and Bryan Harris, “Drug gangs in Brazil’s favelas enforce coronavirus lockdown.” Financial Times. 26 March 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/aaef1591-2fc5-4e6f-ab84-0e83b5a146ca?segmentId=114a04fe-353d-37db-f705-204c9a0a157b.
 In English the excerpted text reads: “Going beyond the measures taken by the state, a message sent by social networks in the communities of Rio das Pedras, Muzema and Tijuquinha, in the West Zone of Rio, advises that the population does not leave the streets after 8 pm. ’Attention all residents of Rio das Pedras, Muzema and Tijuquinha !!! …Curfew starting today 20:00 hrs. Whoever is seen on the street after this time will learn to respect the next one !!!’.” In another publication, the note orders the curfew every day, at the same time, and says: “We want the best for the population. If the government does not have the capacity to fix it, organized crime will solve it.”
 In English the excerpted text reads: “Traffickers and militiamen established curfews in favelas after confirmation of cases of coronavirus infections in communities in Rio de Janeiro. Criminals also make threats to residents who are caught circulating in the favelas after 8 pm. In Cidade de Deus, in the West Zone, the first community in Rio to have a confirmed case, the traffickers circulated through the favela with a loudspeaker yesterday afternoon.”
 See for example, Parker Asmann. “What Does Coronavirus Mean for Criminal Governance in Latin America?” InSight Crime. 31 March 2020, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/criminal-governance-latin-america-coronavirus/, Richard Behar, “Organized Crime In The Time of Corona. Forbes. 27 March 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardbehar/2020/03/27/organized-crime-in-the-time-of-corona/#53c25c4f150, and “Crime and Contagion: The impact of a pandemic on organized Crime.” Policy Brief. Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime. March 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/crime-contagion-impact-covid-crime/.
 See John P. Sullivan, “The Challenges of Territorial Gangs: Civil Strife, Criminal Insurgencies and Crime Wars.” Revista do Ministério Público Militar (Brazil), Edição n. 31, November 2019, https://www.academia.edu/40917684/The_Challenges_of_Territorial_Gangs_Civil_Strife_Criminal_Insurgencies_and_Crime_Wars and Vanda Felbab-Brown and Paul Wise, “When pandemics come to slums.” Brookings. 6 April 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/04/06/when-pandemics-come-to-slums/.
 The potential for criminal advantage via the utilitarian provision of social goods is discussed by Felbab-Brown and Paul Wise, Ibid, note 4.
 See Charles Tilly, War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” in Bringing the State Back In. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Theda Skocpol, Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985: pp. 169–91; John P. Sullivan, “How Illicit Networks Impact Sovereignty”: Chapter 10 in Michael Miklaucic and Jacqueline Brewer, Eds. Convergence: Illicit Networks in the Age of Globalization. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2013: pp. 171-188; John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Rethinking insurgency: criminality, spirituality, and societal warfare in the Americas,” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 22, Issue 5, 2011: pp. 742-763, https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080%2F09592318.2011.625720; and David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains—The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 126.
 See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits. New York: The New Press, 2000, 1969 and John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal, 3 December 2012, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/criminal-insurgency-narcocultura-social-banditry-and-information-operations.
 John P. Sullivan, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 15: Skullduggery or Social Banditry? Cartel Humanitarian Aid.” Small Wars Journal, 25 November 2013, https://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-15-skullduggery-or-social-banditry-cartel-humanitarian-aid and John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 24: Cartel and Gang Provision of Post-Earthquake Humanitarian Aid.” Small Wars Journal. 21 October 2017, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-24-cartel-and-gang-provision-post-earthquake-humanitarian.
 Laura Mallene, “Mexican Drug Cartel Gives Out Food to the Poor Amid Pandemic.” OCCRP: Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. 7 April 2020, https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/12038-mexican-drug-cartel-gives-out-food-to-the-poor-amid-pandemic and “Integrantes De El Cartel Del Golfo Entrega Despensas Por Covid-19 En Tamaulipas.” Blog del Narco. 4 April 2020, https://elblogdelnarco.com/2020/04/05/integrantes-de-el-cartel-del-golfo-entrega-despensas-por-covid-19-en-tamaulipas/.
 Kate Linthicum. Molly O’Toole, and Alexander Renderos, “In El Salvador, gangs are enforcing the coronavirus lockdown with baseball bats.” Los Angeles Times. 7 April 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-04-07/el-salvador-coronavirus-homicides-bukele.
 Robert Muggah quoted in Andrew Gully, “Coronavirus in the city: A Q&A on the catastrophe confronting the urban poor.” The New Humanitarian. 1 April 2020, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/interview/2020/04/01/coronavirus-cities-urban-poor?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=social.
 Vanda Felbab-Brown and Paul Wise, “When pandemics come to slums.” Brookings. 6 April 2020, notes 3 & 4.
 See for example, Hugo van den Eertwegh, “Negotiating with Criminal Groups: From Prejudice to Pragmatism.” Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, Paper No. 18. 2016, https://www.gpplatform.ch/sites/default/files/PP18%20Negotiating%20with%20Criminal%20Groups%20-%20From%20Prejudice%20to%20Pragmatism_0.pdf.
 Julia Lindner and André Borges, “Ministério dialoga com o tráfico e a milícia, diz Mandetta.” Terra. 8 April 2020, https://www.terra.com.br/vida-e-estilo/saude/ministerio-dialoga-com-o-trafico-e-a-milicia-diz-mandetta,90e4627d550049272f8242e7b94c75e9qwxjeix4.html. In English the excerpted text reads: “‘The federal government is preparing a strategy to combat the new coronavirus in Brazilian favelas that will seek support from leaders linked to organized crime. According to the Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the portfolio is willing to dialogue with drug and militia leaders to obtain support for the isolation measures… Health dialogues, yes, with the traffic, with the militia, because they are also human beings and they need to collaborate, help, participate. So, at this moment, when we do this type of placement, we make it clear that everyone will collaborate (in combating the covid-19)’, said the minister during a press conference this Wednesday, 8 [April].”
 Also see, “Ministério da Saúde está disposto a dialogar com o tráfico e com a milícia, diz Mandetta.” O Popular. 8 April 2020, https://www.opopular.com.br/noticias/cidades/minist%C3%A9rio-da-sa%C3%BAde-est%C3%A1-disposto-a-dialogar-com-o-tr%C3%A1fico-e-com-a-mil%C3%ADcia-diz-mandetta-1.2032049.
 Colin P. Clarke, “Yesterday’s Terrorists Are Today’s Public-Health Providers.” Foreign Policy. 8 April 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/08/terrorists-nonstate-ungoverned-health-providers-coronavirus-pandemic/.
For Additional Reading
“Crime and Contagion: The impact of a pandemic on organized Crime.” Policy Brief. Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime. March 2020.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, “How COVID-19 is changing law enforcement practices by police and criminal groups.” Brookings, 7 April 2020.
John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds. Strategic Notes on Third Generation Gangs. A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2020.
John P. Sullivan, “The Challenges of Territorial Gangs: Civil Strife, Criminal Insurgencies and Crime Wars.” Revista do Ministério Público Militar (Brazil), Edição n. 31, November 2019.