Brazilian media’s drug war role


Rio de Janeiro is surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has something special about it that you can sense from the very first moment you breath in this ‘wonder’ city, or ‘cidade maravilhosa’ as it is called in Portuguese.

But alongside the incredible beaches, beautiful people and samba music bars that stand on almost every corner, there are 16 million people living in abject poverty, without basic needs such as infrastructure, employment, education, health care assistance and more, being met. This unorganised social structure results in major problems for everyone.

As in virtually all major cities in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro social and economical problems are very easy to observe: social inequality, lack of a basic public education system available for all, deficient public healthcare. The list of problems goes on and on. 

Crime comes as an easier and much more widely available alternative for those people for whom life has not presented many other opportunities.

Media and the drugs war

Media has played a very silent role regarding drugs until recently. Only in the last few years have media channels started to have an open discussion and talk freely about the drug, crime and corruption problems that exist in Brazil.

Drug trafficking in Rio and indeed all around Brazil is no news – at least for those who want to be realistic. But society is slowly becoming more organised in tackling the issue.

The government, including its armed forces, civil society (ordinary people) and the media are now working together against this very complex issue, that has made some locations in Brazilian very dangerous places to be.

Several television programmes have been key in informing Brazilian society about the cruelty and bloody stories of this underworld. Jose Luiz Datena, a presenter currently working for BAND Television, hosts an incredibly popular show called Brasil Urgente. A brave journalist, he has received many death threats over the years he has been presenting TV shows about crime in Brazil.

He is definitely a figurehead in crime journalism and reporting in Brazil. Datena says what he thinks and usually put the blame on the political systems as the root of crime in Brazil.

Reporting on (and from) the favelas

Recently, a series of attacks against vehicles and civilians took place after a drug dealer was killed in Rio during one of the city’s police actions against trafficking in a favela [shanty town].

Dozens of vehicles – cars and buses – were burnt by bandits during the strikes. The chaotic situation was addressed by Sergio Cabral, Rio de Janeiro State Governor, taking a historical decision to invade two major shantytowns in the city, Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemao.

It was like a battle between good and evil, with media placed as an information channels for both sides, each seeing the damage caused by the other almost in real time through television, radio and internet.


  • 96 vehicles burnt;
  • 36 dead;
  • 350 police agents in the action;
  • 47,000 students left without classes;
  • 103,123 tons of drugs consumed per year in Rio;
  • 316 million Brazilian Reais (USD 190 million) estimated annual revenue from drugs in Rio;
  • 1.5% (16,000) of favelas inhabitants working in drug industry.

In this particular situation, the media played a much more vital role than before, providing information and acting as a channel through which people could express their opinions and be heard.

Media response

Most front pages or headline stories of Brazil’s main media channels were give over to this drug war, including TV, radio and magazines. All clearly demonstrated support to Rio’s government decision to invade some favelas.

Magazine covers that circulated in Brazil during or just after the invasions included the headlines: ‘Rio de Janeiro, November 25th 2010 – the day Brazil started winning the crime’ (VEJA magazine, the most printed magazine in Brazil); ‘Consumption: the most difficult part of the battle against drugs’ (ISTOE, the second most read magazine in the country); and ‘We will win the traffic – the war is not over. But police action, with population’s support shows that is possible to free Rio de Janeiro – and all Brazil – from this disease’ (EPOCA, the third most read news magazine within Brazil). All of those titles are from weekly magazines with national circulation.

The war was of course only one more chapter in Rio’s drug industry history. However this time it seemed to be painted in colours by all different types of media, from traditional ones to online and social media reporting.

The media opened a countrywide discussion about the crime problem during this situation, and gave much more visibility to the problems that many Brazilians are facing every day.

Tweeting the invasion

During the invasions of Alemao Complex, some of its teenage inhabitants took to using social media instant messaging service Twitter, to post in real time about what was going on in the favela.

ISTOE Magazine (number 2143, from December 8th 2010) published in its article about ‘Rio war against drug traffic’ some tweets by @IgorComunidade which detailed the situation on the ground: “inhabitants and children in the middle of gunfire”; “2 drug dealers have been arrested near fazendinha”; “police agents are not letting anyone pass in Grota”; “we will not have classes tomorrow in Alemao and Vila Cruzeiro”.

This episode of Rio’s (and Brazil’s) war against drugs trafficking was different in many aspects, but the mix of traditional and new media used to communicate and support police actions, demonstrated people, government and the media together on the issue, talking the same language.

Hopefully, it was only the start.