If Brazil is not for beginners, as the composer Tom Jobim once said, Rio de Janeiro often feels as if requires postdoctoral-level skills to penetrate. Like in mid-century Los Angeles, Rio’s seemingly benevolent ocean setting is undercut by noir tones of moral ambiguity, violence and betrayal. Towering volcanic humps, hidden lagoons and forest-clad mountains, strung together with viaducts and tunnels – Rio’s famous topography itself is suggestive of shifting, multiple realities. No less disorientating are the labyrinthine networks of drug gangs, corrupt police forces and shady politicians that have condemned this great city to years of pointless violence and social upheaval.
Misha Glenny’s Nemesis takes up the challenge through a biography of Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes (known as Nem), who ran the drug trade in Rio’s largest favela, Rocinha, between 2005 and 2011. The book opens with Glenny visiting Nem in a federal prison in Mato Grosso do Sul – not one of the cesspits of Brazil’s regular prison system, but a freshly constructed maximum security facility built with the purpose of isolating and controlling Brazil’s criminal elite.