Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, alias “Nem,” led the Amigos dos Amigos gang in Rocinha, a neighborhood of some 150,000 residents in the southern part of Rio de Janeiro that is a key drug trafficking area. The crime boss, often touted as Rio’s most intelligent and sophisticated, was arrested in November 2011 while attempting to flee the neighborhood ahead of a planned security force occupation. Nem is thought to have continued running Amigos dos Amigos’ criminal activities from inside prison, but dissidence within the ranks of the group and violent clashes with rivals may be weakening his control.
Nem was born in Rocinha to parents who had migrated from northeast Brazil in an attempt to escape poverty. According to Nem, medical debts that amassed when his daughter developed a tumor in 1999 led him on the path from supervisor of a cable TV company to head of Amigos dos Amigos’ operations in the favela before the age of 30. Nem borrowed money from the powerful Rio-based Red Command (Comando Vermelho), and in exchange put his managerial experience to work for the group’s Rocinha drug boss, Luciano Barbosa da Silva, alias “Lulu,” until police killed him in 2004.
In 2018, Nem told news outlet El País that after Lulu’s death he attempted to leave drug trafficking behind, but corrupt police officers threatened and pressured him to continue his involvement in criminal activities in order to maintain stability in the favela and a steady flow of money to corrupt security forces.
During the tumultuous time that followed Lulu's death, Amigos dos Amigos, a criminal group formed by dissident former members of the dominant Red Command, took control of Rocinha. Amigos dos Amigos boss Erismar Rodrigues Moreira, alias “Bem-Te-Vi,” ran operations in the favela until his death in a shootout with police in 2005. Nem and another close associate of Bem-Te-Vi, João Rafael da Silva, alias "Joca," then took the reins from the slain gang boss.
In 2007, Joca was arrested, opening the door for Nem to become the top leader of Amigos dos Amigos. Under Nem’s leadership, the gang opted less for violence as a means of control and more for building community support and buying off corrupt police. The reduction in violence was good for business and attracted less negative attention to Rocinha, helping to turn it into one of the most lucrative drug markets in the city. Sales of cocaine and marijuana in Rocinha and neighboring Vidigal are estimated to have brought in yearly profits of more than 100 million reais ($60 million) during Nem’s reign.
Nem functioned as an old-style mafia boss, wielding total power within Rocinha, with the backing of a personal army of some 200 gunmen and a makeshift social welfare system that provided services to residents. An interview he gave to a reporter shortly before his 2011 arrest painted a picture of a man who exerted relatively benign social control in his community, adjudicating disputes between residents. He claimed that there was hardly any theft within the neighborhood, that he did not allow the sale of crack cocaine there, and that he supported some policing initiatives. Nem has since denounced combative militarized approaches to addressing violence in Rocinha and has suggested that long-term programs focused on education and healthcare, as well as drug legalization, would be more effective at taking down traffickers.
Nem attempted to fake his own death in January 2010 in order to retire and evade capture. He had a death certificate made up, and a fake identity prepared, but the scheme was discovered before he could carry it out.
In August 2010, Nem made national headlines when a group of his men invaded the Intercontinental Hotel in the neighborhood of São Conrado after fleeing from a police ambush on their way back from a party. The gunmen took dozens of people hostage in the hotel, distracting authorities and allowing Nem to safely return to Rocinha.
Nem was arrested in November 2011 ahead of a publicly announced security force occupation of Rocinha. According to journalist Misha Glenny’s 2015 biography of Nem, the drug boss had previously attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate his surrender to authorities, and his widely televised arrest while attempting to flee Rocinha in the trunk of a diplomatic vehicle was likely engineered by police based on surveillance.
Nem was sentenced in 2013 to a total of nearly 100 years in prison for drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. He is currently being held at a maximum-security federal prison in the rural northern state of Rondônia.
Nem's criminal career became so well-known in Rio that a book has been written about his life, with a television show also in development.
Nem and his Amigos dos Amigos group made the majority of their criminal proceeds from sales of cocaine and marijuana in Rocinha, the neighboring favela of Vidigal and middle-class neighborhoods in southern Rio. They laundered the profits through local businesses. Nem also oversaw violent crimes committed by Amigos dos Amigos members, reportedly including torturing and murdering individuals perceived as threats to the gang.
Nem’s base of criminal operations throughout his time as the boss of Amigos dos Amigos was the neighborhood of Rocinha in southern Rio de Janeiro.
Allies and Enemies
Amigos dos Amigos’ main enemy is Rio de Janeiro’s other biggest drug gang, the Red Command.
Nem’s former bodyguard, Rogério Avelino da Silva, alias “Rogério 157,” is thought to have broken from the ranks of Amigos dos Amigos before his December 2017 arrest, partnering with the rival Red Command in an attempt to take over Rocinha's lucrative drug trade.
According to security experts consulted by InSight Crime in 2017, Amigos dos Amigos may have recently teamed up with Brazil's strongest crime group, the São Paulo-based First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), which is reportedly trying to weaken the control of the Red Command in Rio. Press reports based on official sources suggest Nem may also have partnered with the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro) to form a new group called the Third Command of Friends (Terceiro Comando dos Amigos).
Following Nem’s 2011 arrest, news reports have indicated that the drug boss could be maintaining some level of control over Amigos dos Amigos’ operations from inside prison. In 2014, Nem’s girlfriend Danúbia de Souza Rangel was accused of helping relay orders from Nem to Amigos dos Amigos members in Rocinha. (Rangel, who hid out in Rocinha as a fugitive until she was allegedly expelled by Rogério 157, was arrested in October 2017.)
Being behind bars often does not prove to be an obstacle for Brazilian gangsters wishing to continue their criminal careers, making it likely that Nem continues to maintain control of Amigos dos Amigos. However, Nem himself has denied this, and conflicts in Rocinha sparked by dissidence in the group may weaken whatever power he has within the gang.