Dealing With Devils

WASHINGTON FREE BEACON “In communities scarred by violence, many don’t know what peace looks like. Teenagers in Brazilian favelas, Jamaican garrisons, and Honduran slums see these crime wars as a natural state of affairs. It’s normal to have men on the corner with Kalashnikovs, shots ringing out at night, corpses hanging from bridges.’’

Ioan Grillo’s new book shines a torch on the darker side of Latin America and the Caribbean—specifically, on the grotesque institutional violence used by criminal gangs. Grillo begins his journey in the slum cities of Rio de Janeiro. This is dangerous work. In 2001, a Brazilian investigative journalist attracted the ire of a gang and was subjected to a street trial. Finding him guilty, the gang “burned his eyes with cigarettes, used a samurai sword to cut off his arms and legs while he was still alive, put his body in a tire with gasoline and set him on fire.’’ The gangs call this “the microonda, or microwave oven.’’

In Brazil, Grillo charts the history of the Red Commando gangsters. A fusion of leftist ideologues and street criminality, the Red Commando found its roots in a traditionalist Latin American leftist guerilla movement. Yet while Grillo documents the extensive claims made by a senior Red Commando leader that the organization is a political movement, it quickly becomes clear that political ideology has been forgotten in favor of profit.

Justice systems in Latin America have been unable to cope with a rising tide of crime, largely due to the failure of correctional institutions, a “paradox of Latin America’s crime wars. Prisons are meant to stop gangsters from committing crimes. But they became their headquarters.’’ Unable or unwilling to control the activities of senior gangsters behind bars, the authorities have allowed those gangsters to establish the means of maintaining order there. In doing so, they have accepted the gangsters’ role and power in society.

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