- Dec 11, 2018
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.
“Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure. We want the best for the population. If the government is unable to manage, organised crime resolves,” read one message sent to residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum.
Another message, delivered to residents of a different slum, read: “We are on the streets taking risks so that you can sleep in peace, we leave our families to protect yours, so, then respect the order we have given.” It warned that for anyone caught on the street after 10pm, “it will be bad!”
“Owing to the failure of Brazil’s national leaders to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19, we can expect a dramatic surge of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the coming weeks,” said Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarapé Institute, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro. “As infection rates rise, lockdown measures are imposed and panic spreads, Brazil’s favelas are a ticking time-bomb.”
This presents an opportunity for criminal gangs, he added. “They are describing themselves as the last line of defence from chaos and the ‘true’ providers of law and order. The pandemic is exposing the systemic weakness of the Brazilian state.”