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The island of Ilha Grande is located 62 miles to the southwest of the city of Rio de Janeiro. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slave laborers produced coffee and sugarcane on the island. With the eventual abolition of slavery, however, the island’s economy went into a decline. Then, in 1884, the federal government purchased two large fazendas (farms). The Fazenda do Holandês, located in the port town of Vila do Abraão, was purchased for the purpose of building a quarantine facility for immigrants arriving by boat. The facility, which at the time was considered state of the art, opened its doors in 1886 and could accommodate up to 1,500 passengers who were segregated according to the class of their berth on board ship. Between 1886 and 1913, the Lazerota da Ilha Grande, as it was called, received visits from 4,232 ships, 3,367 of which had to be disinfected. Then, for the next few decades, it was used occasionally as a place to detain political prisoners until it was officially transformed into a prison under the name of the Colônia Penal Cândido Mendes in 1942.
The other property purchased by the federal government was the Fazenda de Dois Rios, located on the other side of the island. Initially, the Fazenda de Dois Rios was used to produce supplies for the quarantine facility in Vila do Abraão, until in 1894 it was transformed into the Colônia Correcional de Dois Rios. During the first two years of its existence, the colônia (colony) accommodated very few prisoners, which led, ultimately, to it being closed down in 1896. In 1903, however, it was reopened and used, increasingly, to relieve overcrowded conditions in the prisons on the mainland.
This second incarnation of the Colônia Correcional de Dois Rios was supposed to be more structured and organized than the first. It was also meant to provide inmates with medical care, education, and opportunities for work. In reality, however, the distance between what was prescribed by law and what existed on the ground was vast, resulting in repeated calls for the prison to be shuttered. As was the case with the Lazerota da Ilha Grande, the Colônia Correcional de Dois Rios was also used, on occasion, to imprison dissidents. These included sailors involved with the Revolta da Chibata in 1910, and members of the Brazilian Communist Party who were violently suppressed by the regime of former dictator Getúlio Vargas the 1930s.
Then, in 1938, plans were made to build a new prison in Vila de Dois Rios. Part of a national program of prison building and reform, the facility was designed to allow prisoners on good behavior to serve out the last part of their sentence in relative freedom. Soon after the prison was completed, however, its name and function were changed from the Colônia Penal Cândido Mendes, which was moved to the site of the Lazerota da Ilha Grande in Vila do Abraão, to the Colônia Agrícola do Distrito Federal. The reason for this change was the deactivation of the prison on the island of Fernando de Noronha, off the northeastern coast of Brazil, which, historically, had been where the more dangerous of the so-called enemies of the state had been held.
It was these political prisoners who were transferred en masse to the Vila de Dois Rios prison that brought to light the horrendous conditions suffered by inmates, even though they themselves were afforded special privileges, and their stay on the island was not that long. With World War II coming to an end, and Brazil entering a democratic phase, a general amnesty for political prisoners was declared on April 18, 1945. Following their departure, the Colônia Agrícola do Distrito Federal reverted back to what it was before; a repository for poor, dark-skinned, uneducated, and defenseless men. And that is the way it stayed until the next wave of political prisoners arrived in the 1960s, except that this time the consequences were very different.
On September 29, 1969, a severely weakened congress passed Law Decree No. 898, otherwise known as the National Security Law. Article 27 of the law stipulated that any attempt to rob a bank would be punishable by 10-24 years in prison, or more if the act resulted in a civilian death. The law was introduced by the military as a means to incarcerate, for as long as possible, members of so-called revolutionary groups that were targeting financial institutions as a means to fund resistance to the regime. The outcome of Article 27 was to bring together these aforementioned revolutionaries and common criminals in Cell Block B of the Vila de Dois Rios prison.
The common criminals in Cell Block B soon learned from their highly politicized colleagues the advantages of organization, loyalty, and discipline, both as a means of survival and, more significantly, as a means of mounting a challenge to gangs that, up until that point, had dominated and terrorized the lives of the inmates of that prison. The situation finally came to a head, after the political prisoners had gone, in September 1979, when, following a provocation, the prisoners in Cell Block B confronted and took out their rivals. From that point on, the Vila de Dois Rios prison was firmly under the control of what would eventually become known as the Comando Vermelho.
In 1999, I went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and met Bruno, a Navy officer who began selling cocaine out Corumbá, a Brazilian border town he patrolled as part of the Navy’s war on drugs, in the mid-1980s. After his 1991 arrest in Rio de Janeiro, he spent the next eight years in prison and joined the Comando Vermelho (CV) criminal faction, eventually becoming one of its leaders. During our interviews about his life, I asked him how he arrived at the Ilha Grande prison on Vila de Dois Rios.
Tell me about your first memories of Vila de Dois Rios.
The guard called for all the prisoners who were being transferred to Ilha Grande. There were 18 of us, and we were all handcuffed together in the hold of this boat. When the boat docked, we were loaded onto a truck that drove us four miles to Vila de Dois Rios. And Vila de Dois Rios was this spectacular place on the other side of the island. When we were coming down from the mountain, we saw the prison below us called the Devil’s Cauldron, because a lot of bad things happened there. I remember thinking to myself, “So this is where I’m going to be. This is where I am going to spend the next few years of my life!” The prison itself was enormous, because there were 500 prisoners in that place, housed in three cell blocks. Cell Block 1 on the ground floor, and Cell Blocks 2 and 3 above it.
How many prisoners were in each cell?
There were two in cells of about nine feet square, because there were two beds in each cell, one on top of another. There was a chest of drawers to put your clothes in, and if you had a television in the cell, then you had a television. If you had a stove in the cell, then you had a stove, so you could even make your own meals. And then there was a bathroom for the two of you. But when I got there, the prison was completely quiet. The old guy who came with me told me that when the prison was completely quiet, something was going on. He was my eyes and ears in that place! Because it was such a big prison, my fear was that he’d be sent to one end, and I’d be sent to the other, because I was a nobody. But you know what? As soon as we got there, he said, “I’m going to introduce you to the leader, I’m going to introduce you to the president.” The president’s name was Zezinho; he was this tall thin guy, with eyes like a cat. He walked around all day in this coat, even if it was a hundred degrees outside, and inside this coat he had these two enormous knives. His bodyguards were always with him. You know, five or six of his men. And the prison, I mean, Jesus Christ, it was like the Comando Vermelho owned the place. Because they controlled everything, and I mean everything.
Where did they put you, when you first got there?
They put us in the cela de espera (waiting cell), like they always do, in Cell Block 1.
And the cells?
The cells were never locked, but the cell blocks were locked from six o’clock at night until six o’clock in the morning. And at around six thirty in the morning, breakfast was served in the kitchen, in Cell Block 1. Except that some prisoners didn’t go to breakfast, because they had breakfast in their cells. And like I said, some of the prisoners had their own stoves, with pots and pans and food and everything, so they didn’t need anything from the kitchen. And then there was also this deal whereby the leaders would get the best food. You know, their food would be better than everyone else’s.
Who made the food?
The prisoners. Because like I said, the prison was run by the prisoners. I mean, it was considered a maximum-security prison, but only because it was so far away. Everyone knew that it was a joke, because the prisoners controlled everything. To give you an example, when Escadinha, one of the founders of the CV, escaped from Ilha Grande by helicopter, no one said anything about the fact that he was living on the outside. Because in those days, some of the prisoners were allowed to build their own houses, outside the prison, and have their families come live with them. So they lived outside the prison in a favela that was built for the CV.
And the authorities let them do this?
They let some of them, you know, the prisoners who were in good standing. And then there were these big parties that went on for three days. And there were families there, and children. I mean, it was as if the prison was transformed into a giant amusement park! Except that while these parties were going on, no one was allowed to escape.
What do you mean?
There was an agreement between the president and the authorities. Because the authorities would say, “If you want to enjoy this privilege, don’t abuse it, okay?” And before these parties started, 20 or 30 prisoners would be allowed out to collect things to decorate the place. I mean, it was incredible the amount of freedom the prisoners enjoyed there. And so the day-to-day life of the prison wasn’t that bad. What I mean is, it wasn’t that stressful, except that everything had to be done a certain way. You had to play by the rules, because the CV controlled everything.
Was this a privilege the CV had won, that they had managed to achieve?
Yes, but to achieve it, there had to be this massacre. Because before the CV took over, the prisoners fought among themselves. I mean, young guys would be raped, and prisoners would have their things stolen. There were all these gangs. I mean, I was even told of cases a long time ago where a prisoner would kill himself rather than be sent there. That was why it was called the Devil’s Cauldron.
When did the situation begin to change?
It changed when the military sent political prisoners there in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because they were the ones who told the prisoners to stop fighting among themselves. They were the ones who told them to take their fight to the authorities instead. It was like, “Look, you guys, you need to unite, because this whole deal of killing each other, it can wait until you’re on the outside, okay?” There was this one group of prisoners there who accepted these ideas, who saw this as the way to go. And then, there was another group there who didn’t and wanted nothing to do with it. So there was this fight, this massacre. Except that some of the guys who were killed didn’t deserve to be, because they’d done nothing wrong. It’s just that they had enemies, and so their names were placed on the list. When the killings started, they barricaded themselves in on the third floor, and that’s when the prison was divided.
You mean between the Comando Vermelho and the Terceiro Comando?
That’s right. The Terceiro Comando (TC) got its name because the guys who were being targeted took refuge on the third floor. Except that there was this domino effect. You know, once it happened on Ilha Grande it started happening in all the other prisons as well. I only found out about this because I asked around. Because I asked guys who’d been there a long time. A lot of guys wanted to get to know me because of my past. It was like, “Hey, you see that guy over there, he was in the navy!” So then they’d ask me to have dinner with them, in their cells.
So you were somewhat of a novelty?
That is right, because they had never had someone like me there before, at least not with a history like mine. And then they would see me speaking with the leader. So they knew I must be someone who’s smart, who’s intelligent, right? I mean, I was going to need all of my intelligence to survive in that place. When I got to Ilha Grande, I had to make friends, and they had to be good friends, right? I mean, if I was going to survive.
From then on, they told me that I didn’t have to eat with all the other prisoners because there would be better food for me. I thought to myself, “Hey, not bad, Bruno, not bad at all!”
In other words, they accepted you. The leaders, I mean.
That’s right. They accepted me, and they protected me. Except that I had to figure out exactly what that protection meant. Because after a while, I realized that there was a Right and a Left in that prison, that there was a politics of crime.
What do you mean?
Because the president of Ilha Grande is treated with the greatest respect, right? Because Ilha Grande’s famous, because that’s where the faction got its start. So whatever the president needs, he gets. You know, in terms of money, or drugs. Or say, if someone needs to escape. Because if someone needs to escape, all of the favelas on the outside will help finance it, with the understanding that it’s someone who’s needed. You know, someone who’s useful to the organization.
So not everyone could escape?
That is right. Only prisoners who robbed banks, or who were involved in things like kidnapping. You know, prisoners who could fill the organization’s coffers. And so the president of the prison has control of everything; all the money in the prison passes through his hands. He’s the one who decides who is going to live and who is going to die, because he’s the leader. Except that when I first met him, I could see that he was not that smart—that he wasn’t the revolutionary I had imagined. Then I began to wonder about his group; about his men and their attitude toward the authorities. I’d been told that the leaders who’d been transferred were good at protecting everyone.
My escape from Ilha Grande began one day when I was talking to my friend, the old guy. Because at six thirty one night, this tall guy came by, carrying a bucket of fish. And I said to my friend, “Who’s that?” And he told me that he was one of the prisoners who were allowed out to fish. And I said, “Jesus Christ, you have to introduce me to him then!” And he said, “No problem, because I watch the news every night in his cell.” That night, my friend said, “Come on, let’s go watch the news.” So when we got there, we knocked on the door and we went in.
How long was he in for?
Thirty years. I made friends with him because I wanted to escape, and he became my best friend there in that prison. But you know what? He ended up trusting me too much. It was only on the day of the escape that I told him that I said, “Let’s escape. Now!”
Was it just him who left the prison each day?
There was him and three others. So I said to him, “Tomorrow I’ll be back, okay?” And he said, “Okay.” The next night, I went back there. Because he was late in getting there, I talked to his cellmate. I said to him, “How long have you been living with this guy?” And he said, “Here, in this cell? Six years already.” “And how long has he been going out to fish?” “Oh, a long time, because he’s the leader of the group.” “So do you think I’ll be able to persuade him, you know, to get me out to fish?” “Yes, yes, of course. All you have to do is talk about fish. Talk to him about fishing, because that’s what he likes.”
And did you fish?
Me? Never. I mean, I knew there were fish in the sea, but I had never fished! As soon as he got back, I said to him, “Barbicha,” because he had this big bushy beard and that’s what everyone called him, “Barbicha, is everything okay?” “Yep, everything’s okay. I’m going to make us some coffee. Now, do you want some fish? Because I brought you some fish.” And I noticed right away how comfortable he was. And I said, “What type of fish do you have there?” “Well, I have a xererete, because they’re the best.” And then he showed me the fish and I said to him, “In Mato Grosso do Sul, we have pacu, pintado, dourado . . .” “You mean you know how to fish?” “Yes!” “With a net?” “Yes!” “Well, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll have a word with Seu Albinate, okay?”
Because you were also thinking of escaping, right?
I went to Ilha Grande with the idea of escaping. So of course that was part of it. I was thinking that if I was out there fishing, someone could come by and get me, but because I’d arrived in July, when it was winter, and there weren’t any fish. And then Barbicha said to me, “Do you know how to do anything else? Because in Vila do Abraão,” which was where the boats came in, “there is this house that belongs to a military policeman. And the roof’s rotten, and they want us to replace it. So I was thinking that if you knew how to do that sort of thing, I could put in a good word for you. Because there are guys in prison who are carpenters, it’s just that the authorities won’t let them out.” Because after the massacre, many of the prisoners were under suspicion. In fact, I was the only prisoner, in the final years of the prison, to be allowed out.
Barbicha said, “Well, there are these houses that need to be repaired. And I’m trying to find something for the guys who go out fishing to do. And so we want to send them to Vila do Abraão to take a look at these houses. So listen up, okay? Tomorrow morning you’ll be leaving early, around six o’clock in the morning. Make sure that you are ready.” So then he signed for my release and sent the papers over to the guardhouse. And that night, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there with my eyes open. Because I had been there for four months already. And a lot of shit had happened since then. And now I was going to be allowed out! But what was worrying me was all the things I said I could do that I couldn’t. I mean, how the hell was I going to get around that? But that’s okay, I thought, because I’ll just stay close to Barbicha, because he knows how to do everything. Because he was a bright light in my universe. He was my hope! And like I said, I lay there the whole night with my eyes open, thinking about the next day.
But you weren’t thinking of escaping—or were you?
No, not that day. I just wanted to get out of there. In fact, it was more than a year until I escaped. Because I mean, I would have been a fool to try and escape right away. So then, when we got there, to this house, we climbed up on the roof. And I could see that the job was going to be difficult. But then luckily, as we were taking off the shingles, all these termites came running out. And so we called the military policeman who was guarding us, and Barbicha said to him, “Look, the place is infested with termites, so we can’t fix it, okay?” And the policeman said, “Okay then, let’s go back and talk to Seu Albinate.” Because Seu Albinate was in charge of us. He was the one who got us out each day, and we were his responsibility. So we had to go back and tell him about the house.
And what were you thinking?
I was thinking, “What am I going to tell them now, that I used to work as a fumigator?” But then, when we got back to the prison, Seu Albinate remembered that there were things to do in the shed where they stored all the equipment. You know, for fishing. He said that since we were out already, we might as well spend the day working there. When we got there, there were these huge canoes, and all these nets, and Seu Albinate said, “There are no fish right now, but by August the water will be warm again, and we’ll be able to get back out there. Now, do you know how to sew? Because these nets are in bad shape. And if we repair them now, we won’t have to repair them later, okay?” And I said, “Yes, yes, I know how to sew.” So then Barbicha came over and stood beside me said, “Look, it’s like this. Put this through there, and then bring it over, understand?” Because repairing a net isn’t easy. And at first I was getting everything wrong, I mean, I was getting everything tangled. But then, after watching Barbicha and the others for a while, I began to get the hang of it. When we were finished, Seu Albinate said, “Okay, let’s put everything away.” And then he turned to me and said, “Now listen, there’s no work for you tomorrow, understand? Because you were allowed out just to work on the house. And since we’re not going to be doing that anymore . . .” So then I said, “But Seu Albinate, I’ll do anything. I’ll paint the shed, I’ll repair the nets, I’ll do anything!” I mean, the only thing I didn’t do was get down on my hands and knees and beg. So then he said, “Okay, okay, I’ll see what I can do, because it’s really hard to get prisoners out these days.”
Because of the massacre.
Precisely. Because there were a lot of families living in that town, and they were afraid of the prisoners, like they were diseased or something. And Seu Albinate tried to explain all this to me. I said to him, “Seu Albinate, I know what it’s like to be a prisoner, I really do. I just want you to know that you can trust me, okay?” And then he said to me, “So you’re not going to try and escape?”
He said that?
Yes, he said, “So you’re not going to try and escape?” And I said, “Look, if I told you I didn’t want to escape, I’d be lying. Because every prisoner wants to escape, right? But on the other hand, if I told you I was going to escape, I’d also be lying. I mean, they’d both be lies, understand?”
Because you were thinking of escaping, but not right then?
Exactly. But I wasn’t going to tell him that, right? “Hey, I’m going to escape, but not right now.” And so the next day Barbicha left the prison and I didn’t. And after a few days I thought to myself, “It must have been something I said.” And so I knew I had to speak to Seu Albinate again somehow. And so when all the prisoners were allowed out of their cell blocks in the morning, I went and stood at the front gates, because I didn’t want to spend any more time in that prison.
So on Ilha Grande, the prisoners were allowed out, inside the prison?
That’s right, because the prison was open for the entire day. I mean, you could wash your clothes, you could run around, and you could play soccer. Because they had teams there, and the favelas sent uniforms. We had referees and everything. When there was a tournament, the prisoners and the staff would come out and watch. I mean, it was incredible how well it was organized.
So anyway, after a few days of me standing there, I caught sight of Seu Albinate. And I called to him, I said, “Seu Albinate, I’m still waiting for that opportunity.” And he said, “What opportunity?” “It’s me, Bruno, remember?” “Ah yes, I remember. I’ll talk to Barbicha, so you can be allowed out tomorrow.” And so the next day I left the prison after breakfast, in the morning.
To do what?
To go back to where they stored the fishing equipment. And I worked there every day until we were ready to go out and fish. And that’s how I got to know Seu Jeferson. On the first day we went out, Seu Jeferson said, “Naval, since you were in the navy, why don’t you man the rudder?” And I said, “Okay.” But you know what? I had no idea what I was doing. When we pushed off that morning, the first wave hit us, and then the second, and then Barbicha shouted out, “On the third wave, row!” And so then I said, “Seu Jeferson, are you sure you don’t want to steer? Why don’t you let me go up front?” And so then I went up front with Barbicha. And I started to paddle. And my paddle got caught with Barbicha’s and almost fell out of my hands. And so then I started paddling again. And when we finally got to where we were going, Barbicha said, “Okay, let’s stop here.” And then we started feeding out the rope that was attached to the top of the net. And then we attached the rope to the buoys until we made a circle. And then the fish swam in, and they stayed there swimming around and around. Then, when we went back in the afternoon, we lifted up the net and grabbed hold of the fish. And it was when we were grabbing hold of the fish that Seu Jeferson turned to me and said, “Naval, you don’t know anything about fishing, now, do you!” I said, “But Seu Jeferson, I’m used to fresh water. And the fish here are a lot smarter!” And so then he laughed and he said, “Look, Naval, I can tell you know nothing about fishing. But that’s okay, because everyone here likes you, and I can see that you’re eager to learn. And you know what? We’ll make you into a fisherman!”
And so then I stayed. And it was a lot of hard work, because the fish were really heavy. And then you had to fill up these huge containers with ice and churn it all around. And by the end of the day you were exhausted, and then you had to get up at four the next morning and start all over again.
How many fish did you catch in one day?
It depended, because we used to check the nets once in the morning and once again in the afternoon. And I remember one day we ended up with two tons of fish, because we managed to catch a shoal. And it also depended on the type of fish. And I stayed there working for more than a year, for almost two years, because I couldn’t figure any other way of escaping.
Did they pay you?
Yes, minimum salary. Prison wages, at the end of each month. And during the fishing season, they gave us a few kilos of fish to take back to the prison. And Barbicha would sell most of his and give one or two to the president, to keep on his good side. But I took all of mine back to give to friends. You know, the ones who didn’t have anything. Because I figured that sooner or later they would try and take over. And so I knew I had to be friends with them, and with the group in power. Because while you are in prison you always have to be thinking about life on the outside. Because if you don’t, you’re screwed.
This article is excerpted from Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer (Duke University Press, 2015).