Rio’s ‘narco-pentecostal’ gangs accused of ordering Catholic churches to close

<span>The Complexo de Israel, a cluster of favelas near Rio de Janeiro’s international airport.</span><span>Photograph: Alan Lima/The Guardian</span>
The Complexo de Israel, a cluster of favelas near Rio de Janeiro’s international airport.Photograph: Alan Lima/The Guardian

Reports that a powerful Rio drug lord known for his extremist religious beliefs ordered Catholic churches near his stronghold to close have spooked worshipers and security experts and exposed the advent of a “narco-pentecostal” movement made up of heavily armed evangelical drug traffickers.

Claims emerged in the Brazilian press over the weekend that Álvaro Malaquias Santa Rosa – a notorious gang boss known as Peixão (Big Fish) – had determined that three places of worship should shut down in and around the agglomeration of favelas that he controls in northern Rio.

Since Peixão – whose nickname comes from the ichthys “Jesus” fish – took power in 2016 of five favelas that have become known as the Complexo de Israel, an allusion to the evangelical belief that the return of Jews to the Holy Land is a step towards the second coming of Christ and Armageddon.

A neon Star of David has been erected at the top of the complex and at night can be seen for miles around – an unmissable symbol of Peixão’s force and his faith. The roofs of the favelas’ redbrick houses are dotted with blue and white Israel flags demarcating the territory the gangster controls. When police raided one of his hideouts in 2021 they found a swimming pool framed by a mural of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem and the words: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”

In the past, Peixão’s troops have been accused of ransacking Afro-Brazilian temples and banning Afro-Brazilian celebrations in the Complex of Israel, where more than 100,000 people live. But this week’s reports were the first relating to Catholic places of worship.

Related: Christ and cocaine: Rio’s gangs of God blend faith and violence

The first inkling that something was amiss came on Saturday when staff at the Our Lady of Conception and Saint Justin Martyr parish told parishioners that meetings and mass were suspended “until further notice”. The social media post was later deleted but, according to local newspapers, word quickly spread among churchgoers that the order had come from Peixão.

The broadsheet O Globo said there were subsequent reports that armed men on motorbikes had visited two other local churches, Saint Hedwig and Saint Cecilia, and decreed that weddings or christenings should not take place. Those churches also published messages announcing their temporary closure.

The Archdiocese of Rio denied the media reports, insisting their churches were operating as normal. In a statement, Rio’s public security secretary attributed the reports to online rumours and claimed no such order had been given.

But the civil police’s anti-intolerance and racism unit is reportedly investigating. On Monday morning, military police launched an operation to remove barricades blocking roads leading into Peixão’s domain, where Bible-themed murals carry quotations from Psalms. The government said police had been deployed to prevent “instability in the region and ensure that churches can operate and that residents are safe”.

Whatever the truth, the drama has alarmed churchgoers and highlighted the growing influence of Bible-bashing bandits known as “narco-pentecostals” who now control large swaths of Rio.

“They call themselves evangelicals but I refuse to use this term. In reality, [Peixão] is a narco-religious-fundamentalist,” said the commentator and former newspaper editor Octavio Guedes on the television network GloboNews.

Experts say the backdrop to the rise of narco-pentecostalism is the breakneck spread of evangelical churches through Brazil in the almost four decades since 37-year-old Peixão was born in Rio’s dilapidated northern suburbs.

Since then, Brazil’s evangelical community has exploded, from less than 7% of the population in 1980 to 22% in 2010 and about 30% today. The Catholic congregation, meanwhile, has shrunk dramatically. In 1991, 83% of Brazilians identified as Catholic, compared with about 50% today.

Related: Attack on 11-year-old in Rio highlights fears of rising religious intolerance

The evangelical revolution has been particularly fervid in Rio, especially in deprived suburbs and favelas where preachers provide crucial support to downtrodden residents whose relatives face unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction.

But a byproduct has been the disturbing melding of Christian extremism and members of the drug factions who govern many such communities. Some observers credit preachers with reducing levels of violence by embracing Rio’s drug lords and trying to convince them to spill less blood.

But others fear they have radicalized highly dangerous outlaws such as Peixão – a fugitive who is reportedly wanted for crimes including trafficking, murder and concealment of a human corpse – with dire consequences for religious freedom.

Cecília Olliveira, a security expert whose group, Fogo Cruzado, tracks armed violence, said it was common to hear of incidents in which radicalized traffickers attacked Afro-Brazilian temples called terreiros or banned favela residents from wearing religious necklaces known as guias or white clothes.

But Olliveira had never heard of Catholic churches facing similar repression, which she called the consequence of longstanding religious intolerance from sectors of the neo-pentecostal church.

“What it shows us, above all, is the extent to which the state does not have formal control over certain areas,” Olliveira said of the gangster’s alleged order to close the churches.

“Democracy never reached certain parts of the country and this [order] is crystal-clear proof of this because it infringes one of the most basic rights … which is having the right to profess your faith. And it’s becoming clearer by the day that in fact, no, you don’t have this right,” she said.

Olliveira suspected the government’s denial of the situation was a reflection of how mortifying this reality was. “If you admit that this has happened, then you are admitting that you have failed,” she said.

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