Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – There’s a reason we seek to know more about the significant others of professional athletes, politicians, actors, rock stars, and even CEOs. Behind our fascination lies a suspicion that these people prop up the careers of their lovers in mysterious ways.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

Recent history suggests that Rio de Janeiro’s drug bosses need their girlfriends and wives for far more than romance. If these women matter to their men, then they also matter a lot to Rio’s efforts to pacify the city’s favelas.

The last to make the news was a young woman named Danúbia de Souza Rangel, the girlfriend of Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, more commonly known as “Nem,” Rocinha’s recently captured drug boss.

Nem fell into police hands two weeks ago, and just a few days before the major military and police occupation of Rocinha. This past Friday, police followed anonymous tips into a beauty salon, where they took Danúbia into custody.

Why does Danúbia, known in Rocinha as “Xerifa,” (Sheriff) matter so much? So far, she is accused only of “association with drug trafficking.” Danúbia deserves full legal rights to be sure. At the same time, the people of Rocinha deserve a thorough investigation of the woman who stood so close to the man who brought drug trafficking and violence to their neighborhood for so many years.

While the drug bosses hold power, their wives and girlfriends aid them in several small ways. The women can help their men to hide, by creating ordinary domestic images in front of all kinds of illegal activities. They can also launder drug money, by starting small businesses or simply by investing the money in jewelry, real estate, clothing, and cars.

In fact, drug bosses’ girlfriends and wives matter most after their lovers go to prison. The women gain regular access to their boyfriends and husbands for conjugal visits. These visits made a major player of Silvânia Fernandes Neiva Faria, the wife of Elias Pereira de Silva, or “Elias Maluco,” the imprisoned Complexo do Alemão drug boss most famous for torturing and murdering the journalist Tim Lopes.

A recent investigation found that Silvânia was receiving a monthly stipend of up to R$5,000 for passing messages back and forth to Elias Maluco. In doing so, she became the most important link between the Complexo do Alemão’s current drug leaders and the man still bossing them around from behind the prison walls.

These women also matter because their relationships can shape attitudes toward women up and down the hills that their husbands and boyfriends control. On an intercepted telephone call in 2002, Elias Maluco threatened to break both his girlfriend’s legs in a debate over where they would meet one day.

Just last summer, one of Elias Maluco’s deputies, Renato Souza Lopes, known as “Ratinho,” threw boiling water at his girlfriend’s face during a fight on a conjugal visit to prison. Without enough other role models, young men and women in favelas risk mistaking these high profile cases of domestic violence for standard behavior in normal relationships.

So what can be done about the drug bosses’ girlfriends and wives? First, every single one should be investigated, thoroughly but fairly. Second, their conjugal visits need to be spread out further, or otherwise changed.

The rights of prisoners to conjugal visits are complicated matters, beyond the scope of this article, but the current pattern of visits is unjustifiable. Third, women like Danúbia, who arrive in prison and may stay in prison, should receive special attention and emotional rehabilitation.

Finally, those who stay out of prison should be recruited into civic institutions, like residents’ associations and churches, where a few—and a few would be worth it—might turn their vicariously-earned leadership skills to good causes.

Above all, authorities and civic leaders need to recognize that these women matter more than most people think they do. Without more attention and intervention, the wives and girlfriends of Rio’s drug bosses will remain the worst kind of first ladies: the ones who are famous for all the wrong reasons.

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Michael Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.

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