Brazil gangs impose strict curfews to slow coronavirus spread

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A local volunteer carries a package in the Rocinha favela. Brazil’s death toll from coronavirus has risen in recent days.
A local volunteer carries a package in the Rocinha favela. Brazil’s death toll from coronavirus has risen in recent days. Photograph: Léo Corrêa/AP

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 recent days, as Brazil’s coronavirus death toll has climbed to 46, gang members have been circulating in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela in western Rio ordering residents to remain indoors after 8pm.

Last weekend the low-income community – made famous by Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 blockbuster of the same name – became the first such area to record a case of coronavirus.

And 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.”

“The traffickers are doing this because the government is absent. The authorities are blind to us,” one resident told the Guardian.

A report in the Rio newspaper Extra said gang members with loudhailers were moving around City of God telling its 40,000 residents: “We are imposing a curfew because nobody is taking [coronavirus] seriously. It’s best to stay at home and chill. The message has been given.”

City of God’s gangsters are not the only outlaws attacking coronavirus in Rio’s densely populated favelas, which are home to about 2 of the city’s 7 million residents.

In the Morro dos Prazeres, gang members have told residents only circulate in groups of two while in Rocinha, one of Latin America’s biggest favelas, traffickers have also decreed a curfew.

“The gangsters have said that after 8.30pm everybody must stay indoors and if they don’t there will be reprisals,” said a street hawker who lives there. “I’m staying at home – filled with fear and smothered in hand sanitizer,” the man joked.

In Santa Marta, a favela that sits in the shadow of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, traffickers have been handing out soap and have placed signs near a public water fountain at the community’s entrance that say: “Please wash your hands before entering the favela.”

“I think they wrote this for the addicts who come here to buy drugs, so they don’t bring the virus in,” one local said. “But it won’t work. People who live right up at the top of the [hilltop] favela sometimes go two weeks without running water. If people aren’t even able to feed themselves, how are they supposed to stay clean?”

Meanwhile, in some sections of the Complexo da Maré, a sprawling favela near Rio’s international airport, traffickers have told shops and churches to reduce their operating hours.

“Only the bakery stays open until later – until 11pm,” said one mother who lives in Parque Uni?o, one of 16 communities that make up the Complexo. “Nobody wants to go outside – first of all for fear of coronavirus and now because of this order.”

In another of the Complexo’s communities, Nova Holanda, evangelical prayer sessions are now taking place outside the church.

“We sing our songs of praise to God from the windows of our homes, at pre-arranged times,” one resident said.

Other favelas in which curfews have been imposed include Pav?o-Pav?ozinho in Copacabana, Cantagalo in Ipanema, and Vidigal, further along the beach past the upper-class neighbourhood of Leblon.

Edmund Ruge, a Rio-based editor for the RioOnWatch news site which covers the favelas, said the imposition of curfews in some areas spoke to the Brazilian state’s longstanding neglect of such areas, which often lack even basic sanitation.

“[But] it isn’t the majority of favelas and it’s not coordinated. It is sporadic things around the city. It’s the exception to the rule – the rule being that civil society is really stepping up right now because they know that the state is not going to do it for them.

“Favela activists have been scrambling very effectively” to respond to the impending coronavirus crisis with donation and awareness campaigns across Brazil, Ruge said, pointing to projects such as #COVID19NasFavelas.

“It has been really impressive. The question is whether or not it is going to be enough.”