RIO DE JANEIRO — To the wondering eyes of children in a slum called Jacarezinho, a helicopter suddenly appeared over the scruffy local plaza last Christmas Eve. In a twinkling, Santa Claus hopped down and began handing out thousands of gifts.
The kids of world-wise Jacarezinho do not really believe in Santa. Everyone knew the presents were from Paulo Roberto de Moura Lima, its most famous native son.
Lima was known in the Brazilian press as "Half-Kilo," a wily drug trafficker and gang leader. But, in Jacarezinho, where he grew up poor and became wondrously rich and powerful, Half-Kilo was known as a winner among losers, a benefactor to the needy, a feared peacekeeper, a nice guy.
He was a prime example of the kind of men who have come to dominate many favelas, the teeming mazes of ramshackle dwellings that clutter the hillsides of picturesque Rio. The favelas began as clusters of squatters' huts and, while still technically illegal, are recognized by officials as permanent fixtures.
Law enforcement officials acknowledge that drug chieftains often exercise a parallel power in the favelas, policing them against other criminals, providing food, funds and even medicine to the poorest residents--and demanding silent acquiescence to their illicit business.
It is a phenomenon that has spread from slum to slum in recent years, becoming part of the social landscape in Rio, a metropolis of more than 10 million people. An estimated 2 million people, often too poor to find housing anywhere else, live in more than 400 favelas here.
Rule From Behind Bars
Some of the favela drug lords eventually run afoul of the law and land in prison--and then continue to run their organizations from behind bars. Half-Kilo was one of those.
Last month, a small helicopter suddenly appeared over the courtyard of Frei Caneca prison, where Half-Kilo was being held. The chopper had been sent to whisk him away in what was planned as a spectacular escape.
But, as Half-Kilo was being pulled into the hovering craft, the plan went awry. Shots rang out, the helicopter was hit, Half-Kilo fell 30 feet to the ground, and the helicopter crashed.
Half-Kilo, 31, died later in a prison hospital. The shops of Jacarezinho closed in mourning. More than 2,000 people, most of them from the favela, attended the funeral.
"Hey, hey, hey, Half-Kilo is our king!" they shouted. "Hey, hey, hey, they killed our king!"
Police say that "Vando," an associate of Half-Kilo, apparently has risen to take charge of the gang, which continues to reign in Jacarezinho.
Jorge Marques, chief of the narcotics division of Rio de Janeiro's state civil police, said the Jacarezinho gang is the richest in Rio, retailing cocaine from five locations.
"All of that belonged to Half-Kilo," Marques said in an interview.
The retail sales points in the favelas are called "smoky doorways." Each has a manager, and the manager has salespeople called "airplanes"--they take off with merchandise and return with money.
The airplanes distribute cocaine in small paper packages. Usually their best customers are middle-class Brazilians who can better afford the drug than can slum residents. Some of the airplanes are as young as 13, and some make $50 on a good day--more than many workers earn in a month at legitimate jobs.
The well-armed drug trafficking gangs usually take over favelas by force, eliminating anyone who defies their authority, according to Marques.
"They control by intimidation," he said. "Those who are not with them are killed or expelled from the hill."
Then the traffickers seek acceptance from their neighbors. "They are able to win over the residents with milk, bread, medicine," Marques said. "At the same time that they are doing that, they enlist the youngsters to be airplanes."
On a wall in Marques' office hangs a large map, dotted with pins marking 62 favelas. Red strings stretch from the pins to labels bearing the names of drug traffickers with nicknames such as "King Kong," "China," "Hairy" and "Stepladder."
The traffickers are able to operate because residents will not cooperate with the police against them, Marques said.
"There is the law of the favela," he said. "No one saw, no one knows, no one will tell. It is a great barrier that the police encounter in any favela."
The police are also handicapped by their scarce resources. The narcotics division has no funds for paying informants, Marques said. Even with eight new automobiles recently acquired, it has only 12 cars for its 140 detectives.
Residents of the favelas say there is no dispute: The local drug trafficking gangs are far more popular than the police.
"The residents wouldn't want to trade the bandits for the police," said Nilton Pereira, a resident of a favela called German's Hill and vice president of the Federation of Favela Assns. of Rio de Janeiro, which represents citizens' associations from 400 favelas.