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?” wondered the peroxide-haired gangster, cradling an AK-47 in his lap as he took a seat 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 work as a foot soldier for a drug faction in Rio de Janeiro. Now he wanted to give thanks for the blessings he thought he had received from above.

“I’ve avoided death so many times. It was he who delivered me from evil,” the drug dealer mused as he began another 12-hour night shift on the front lines of the drug conflict in the Brazilian city.

This Christian conviction was reflected all around the young outlaw, on walls adorned with frescoes of the Old City of Jerusalem and an excerpt from the Epistle to the Galatians: “Walk in the spirit, and you will not satisfy the lusts of the flesh.”

The gangster’s body also celebrated his religion. One wrist was tattooed with a cross and the words “Jesus Lives.” The other was themed, “May my courage be greater than my fear, and my strength greater than my faith.”

“They know their world is a cutthroat world, so they’re looking for something to believe in,” said Elias Santana, a favela preacher who’s dedicated to helping the souls of the increasingly evangelical gangsters in to save Rio.

Pastor Elias Santana prays for one of the young gang members he is trying to lure out of a life of crime. Photo: Alan Lima/The Guardian

As the drug war in Rio exploded in the 1980s, Brazil’s evangelical revolution was still gaining momentum, and many mobsters sought protection from Afro-Brazilian deities like Ogum, the god of war. Drug lords visited Afro-Brazilian temples, built shrines to orixás, and wore necklaces to show their devotion to the Umbanda and Candomblé faiths.

Four decades later, many of these sanctuaries have been replaced by sculpted Bibles and murals of the Last Supper as a new generation of born-again criminals, influenced by a fraternity of Pentecostal preachers, take power.

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

Drug lords, some regular churchgoers, have incorporated Christian symbols into their ultra-violent trade. Packages of cocaine, handguns, and uniforms are emblazoned with the Star of David—a reference to the Pentecostal belief that the Jews’ return to Israel represents progress toward the Second Coming. Gang-commissioned graffiti offer spiritual guidance and heavenly praise.

A cocaine packet with the Star of David - a reference to the Pentecostal belief that the return of the Jews to Israel represents progress towards the Second Coming
A pack of cocaine with the Star of David on it. Photo: Alan Lima/The Guardian

On a recent evening, a high-ranking trafficker walked unarmed and unannounced at a church service in a Rio suburb while a preacher was reading from the Book of John. “I came into the world as light so that no one who believes in me will remain in darkness.” Surrounded by local children and their elegantly dressed parents, the gangster took a white plastic chair in the corner, bowed his head, and began to pray .

Nowhere is the evangelization of Rio’s underworld more visible than at the Complexo de Israel, a cluster of five favelas near the international airport ruled by Peixão (“Big Fish”), a preacher-turned-drug dealer and nicknamed him Ichthys “Jesus” fish has . (The drug lord’s second-in-command is named after the Jewish prophet Jeremiah, while their troops are known as the Army of the Living God).

As a tribute to the neighborhood boss, a mural of the cartoon character Fishtronaut was painted at one entrance, framed by a line from Psalm 33: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”

A view over the Complexo de Israel, a cluster of favelas near Rio International Airport.
A view over the Complexo de Israel, a cluster of favelas near Rio International Airport. Photo: Alan Lima/The Guardian

A neon Star of David sits atop a water tower at one of the highest points of the complex and is visible for miles at night. Nearby, on a ledge overlooking Rio’s statue of Christ the Redeemer to the south, is a Bible in a display case. “Deliver me, O Lord, from wicked men,” says Psalm 140. “Defend me from violent men who hatch evil plans in their hearts and make war every day.”

Police call Peixão, who is wanted for dozens of crimes including torture, murder and concealment of death, one of Rio’s most ambitious and hardened villains, whose fast-growing criminal empire makes a mockery of his supposed Christian faith. In 2019, he was accused of leading the Bonde de Jesus (Jesus Crew), a gang of gun-wielding extremists who allegedly looted a number of Afro-Brazilian temples. According to reports, Afro-Brazilian celebrations have been banned in the Israel complex.

A drug dealer stands next to a mural of Psalm 18:
A drug dealer stands next to a mural from Psalm 18: “The Lord is my Rock, and my Fortress, and my Saviour.” Photo: Alan Lima/The Guardian

However, some residents say the Bible-infused “doctrine” of the gangster who rejects bling-bling includes keeping the community streets clean and well-lit, charitable acts to impoverished locals, swearing, and drug use among gang members and a military focus on discipline – has 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 godly 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 felt that life had improved under the favela’s current church manager: “An environment like this is new to everyone.”

Juju Rude, a Brazilian rapper based in Complexo de Israel whose songs describe life in a community ruled by godly gangsters.
Juju Rude, a Brazilian rapper based in Complexo de Israel whose songs describe life in a community ruled by godly gangsters. Photo: Alan Lima/The Guardian

Rio’s narco-Pentecostals admit their often violent work methods clash with scripture they profess to follow. In another gang-run part of town, as a top trafficker sat on a Honda motorcycle surrounded by bodyguards with automatic rifles, he conceded that drug trafficking was a “nasty” business that sometimes resulted in horrific violence.

But the mobster claimed his faith inspired him to minimize barbarism by trying to convince fellow criminals to spare those they crossed. “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 as if in prayer and shot at point-blank range, shattering his metacarpals but saving his life.

In another favela, a foot soldier with a Bible tattooed on his chest spoke about how much he enjoyed attending services at Pentecostal God is Love, a fundamentalist church with temples in the US and Europe. “It makes me feel lighter,” he said before speeding away on his bike, an AR-15 slung over his shoulder.

Christina Vital, an academic who has spent nearly 30 years studying evangelism’s advance into the Rio gangland, said it was inevitable that traffickers would have embraced Christianity given the stunning evangelical tsunami that swept across the Rio during that time Brazilian society was swept away. Evangelicals now occupy key positions in the world of crime, as well as in the media, politics, the judiciary and culture, she said.

Gun-wielding drug dealers listen to an evangelical service outside a church on the outskirts of Rio
Gun-wielding drug dealers listen to an evangelical service outside a church on the outskirts of Rio. Photo: Alan Lima/The Guardian

Nor was it surprising that vulnerable, marginalized young men sought counsel and compassion from the preachers who searched Rio’s favelas for souls: “It’s such a terrible, fragile life. They live in fear.”

Vital said the implications of the unlikely conflation of crime and Christianity are unclear. There is evidence of “some containment” in the bloodshed, she said, but the mingling of religious intolerance with “harrowing” gang violence is troubling.

Pastor Elias said he respects all faiths and believes his divine crusade would help pacify a city where hundreds of mostly young, black lives are lost each year. “That is the duty of Christianity: to save.”

A week after being invited to bless the foot soldier’s first home, the preacher donned a bright magenta shirt and made his way through winding, muddy hallways to the modest first-floor apartment, for which the criminal paid 8,000 reais ( 1,000 pounds) had paid.

He squeezed in, accompanied by half a dozen Bible-carrying helpers, and the group began singing a hymn entitled “Oh! Jesus loves me”. “Far from the Lord have I walked, on the path of terror. I have never asked for Jesus. Nor have I sought His love,” they sang as the gangster lowered his head.

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

As the singing stopped, a female church member stepped forward and clasped the host’s arm while his friend and mother – a cleaner who had just got home from work – looked on. “God chose you. God is here now!” the woman told him. “Just look at my goosebumps! God is here!” she proclaimed in a trembling voice as she summoned an angel to watch over the trafficker’s life.

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

“It is a life of solitude,” said the pastor, “and Christ has come to set them free from this bondage.”

A warm breeze blew through the narrow streets of the favelas and for a moment the world seemed at peace – but the calm lasted only two hours.

Just after midnight, the crackle of gunfire woke residents as traffickers stormed a nearby neighborhood hoping to expand their territory. Another night of chaos and heartbreak in a city crying out for rescue.

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