My experience here makes me ill-inclined to spend much time looking for the positives in Brazil and especially Manaus. This does not mean that what I may observe is not true, however. I address this thought to those who, like many Brazilians, think that the only reason people say bad things about the place is because they are simply malcontents. Now allow me to continue.
A lot has been talked about in the local, national and international press this week with respect to the wave of killings that “hit” Manaus last weekend. The conspiracy theorists would have us believe that it was the result of a coordinated Police attack in revenge for the killing of an officer last week, while others have suggested that it may be the result of criminal gang warfare. Few have suggested it is a mere coincidence, although of course it is a possibility.
My concern is not really with the motive on this occasion, but with the trend and with a quick reading of the tea leaves, especially since it is not generally part of the Brazilian culture to try to analyse things for the purposes of prediction or planning. On this basis I would like to put my head above the parapet and say that Manaus is most likely in for a very hard time in the near future unless some champion of proactive law and order steps up to the mark to avert disaster.
First of all, we have the local and national economic collapse. Although most of the rich in (and outside) the country are so out of touch with what is happening that they appear to be in denial and do not yet believe that things are going to get a whole lot worse before there is the remotest possibility of them getting any better, the reality on the streets is that we have a burgeoning population who have just had a long spell of the good times and who swallowed the whole Brazilian economic growth miracle hook, line and sinker…and who are shortly going to find that the promised land of milk, honey, iPods, jet skis and never-ending parties has just put up the shutters to them. The result is that for the first time – ever – Manaus is going to have to deal with a large, seriously disaffected youth population. No-one here yet realises how nasty this can make people and what the potential for disaster is.
To make the potential somewhat clearer, let us add to the mix a huge raft of corrupt, very rich, stupendously ignorant and stupid politicians and other so-called ‘community leaders’ and ‘representatives’ who are in fact nothing more than opportunists with a few street smarts. How long will the general public continue to tolerate them?
Next, we can add all the dysfunctional systems that pertain in Brazil, amongst which are the health system, the education system, the legal system, the political system, the banking system and the tax system. In the deepening recession, these will only get worse: an application of heat to the bubbling cauldron.
Now let us consider the lack of infrastructure in the city.There is, basically, nothing much that works and there is little to do (unless one has some money, of course). Even those who have had the money in the last few years are likely to find they no longer have enough – and for them, it will be a case of one door closing, and another slamming in their faces.
Finally, it is worth considering Manaus’ strategic significance in terms of criminality. If one were tasked with identifying the best spots on earth for the future development of one’s nascent criminal or terrorist or extremist organisation, one would be hard pressed to find anywhere better than Manaus. With access to all the best porous illegal goods, drugs and arms borders, a wealth of wonderfully confused and exploitable communications networks and distribution channels, and a million square kilometres to get lost in, Manaus is a veritable paradise for the non-conformist with a revolver, a few kilos of coke, a box of Kalashnikovs, a few thousands smokes, or even the odd bit of farm machinery, box of jewellery or branded sports goods. I have little doubt that thousands of tons of this stuff is coming in to Manaus by river, by road and by air, and being spirited away onwards to local, national and international markets.
Now, if you take a lot of disadvantaged, unrepresented, poor, unfulfilled youth with nothing to do, place them in close proximity to an increasing population of national and international criminal gangs, and dangle in front of them the wealth the government promised them but then took away, it does not take a genius to realise you have a problem on your hands. And if you talk to the Police, as I have been doing over the past year or so (often for the wrong reasons), they will confirm most if not all of these points. They will tell you that the situation is spiralling out of control. That they do not have the resources to deal with it. They will talk openly about the dramatic rise in crime, the flood of drugs and arms coming into the area, and the changing attitudes among the youth population.
This is why I feel it is justifiable – even essential – to propose that the prognosis for Manaus is not great – at least not without some decent leadership, which is a possibility I see as so remote I am tempted to dismiss it out of hand (but since I don’t want you thinking I am a mere pessimist, I shall not). I do not know what exactly happened last weekend, but I do know that it is a wake-up call – and that if it is not heeded, there will be tears before (the next) bedtime.