How do Gang Leaders Stay in Power?

RIO jpgPower is earned, not granted.

In a corporation or government, leaders are elected or appointed.  Once the title is granted, so is the power. But when it comes to gangs there is a universal truth: power is earned, not granted.  Think about Joaquín Guzmán, better known as El Chapo, the notorious kingpin of the Mexican cartel. Twice incarcerated in a maximum security prison, his team never abandoned loyalty to him and sprang him free against all odds. Do they respect him, fear him, or both?

In World War II, when it was clear that Hitler was a madman, several German officers plotted to assassinate Adolph Hitler to retake control of Germany. Deployment of the German Reserve Army was needed to maintain order in the event of a national emergency. General Friedrich Fromm, the head of the Reserve was offered a key position in a post-Nazi Germany restructuring but declined to be directly involved, stating he will not side with them so long as Hitler is alive. Though Hitler and his SS chief, Himmler, weren’t killed, they were seriously wounded in failed attempt to assassinate them.  Though any German could have finished them off, they wouldn’t take action unless Hitler was proven to be dead, which preserved his power for a while longer.

In the slums of Rio, drug gang leaders ascend to power by killing off their opposition and forming loyalties of several imposing gang lynchpins. But how do people like this preserve power?  In “The Godfather” Don Corleone preserved power by his inner circle of lieutenants, his consigliere, and the feared Luca Brasi, whose acts of violence were legendary but whose loyalty to Don Corleone was unquestioned.

Hitler spoke in generalities, pitting one general against another for his loyalty.  In a sense, each general believed that his colleagues were loyal to Hitler, and individually feared taking Hitler on alone. Similarly, if you have ever gone scuba diving, you learn quickly that although barracudas are scary to be near, individually they will never attack any fish or swimmer who is bigger than they are.  Yet a school of piranha will devour an entire cow in a stream within minutes.

In my book “Rio—Reluctant Ascension to Infamy”, Dez runs the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) drug gang, which controls much of the south zone of Rio de Janeiro. He rose to power by proving his loyalty to the prior drug lord and seized his power when his former boss was killed by the police. But he is well aware that any gun-toting kid from the favelas could kill him with a single shot. Dez uses his cunning and political tact to build one of the largest businesses in the area.  His people respect him but fear him, and never question his authority. Dez has maintained his power longer than the average life expectancy of gang leaders, is now married with a wife who wants to raise their son in a safe, normal environment.  But no one merely retires from a drug gang.

“RIO – Reluctant Ascension to Infamy,” the book I have just finished, is a young adult thriller that forces sixteen year-old Lucas Rocha to make many tough decisions in order for his dwindling family to survive. He joins Amigos dos Amigos and finds an unlikely mentor in Dez.

Set against the magnificent landscape of Rio de Janeiro in 2008 at the onset of a massive slum overhaul for the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Lucas Rocha’s odyssey is no different than millions of slum dwellers in the world. Stay tuned for my book, “Rio – Reluctant Ascension to Infamy” and in the meantime, I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.  Stay tuned.

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