Glitzy Sambódromo displays cost millions of reais every year. But samba schools’ journeys from Rio’s underprivileged areas to stardom on the world stage have come under scrutiny in recent years, marred by links to illegal animal fighting, drug trafficking, militia, money laundering and murder.
Public Financing and Rio’s Samba Schools
Samba schools, central to Rio’s Carnival, draw thousands of tourists every year, justifying investments by Rio’s state and city governments. In 2012, each school in the Special Group received a sum of R$2.3 million, a joint contribution from the government and Petrobras. Of the total R$29.8 million, R$4.8 million came from the state government, R$13 million from the city government and R$12 million from Petrobras.
However, this sponsorship money doesn’t go far: floats used by the schools often cost upwards of R$1 million. So, samba schools also receive sponsorship from other private and public entities – and that’s where the trouble begins.
Dirty Money from Dictators
Beija-Flor found itself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons in the run-up to 2015’s competition: the school received a R$10 million donation from Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The dictator, commonly known as Obiang, has been accused of severe human rights abuses from prisoner torture, summary executions and press freedom clampdowns to stealing profits from oil revenues at his people’s expense.
Amnesty International, among others, decried the sponsorship. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs pointed out that Equatorial Guinea had “one of the world’s worst human rights records”, citing the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index findings: less than 50 percent of the country had access to drinking water and one of every five children died before their fifth birthday. Still, Beija-Flor’s 2015 performance honored the country and went on to win the competition.
But Beija-Flor isn’t the only school with dictatorship money: in 2006, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez sponsored Vila Isabel’s performance. The school became that year’s champion, with an enredo telling the story of the Bolivian revolution.
Financed by Illegal Gambling in Brazil
A 2012 investigation by Rio’s government found that seven of the city’s premier samba schools were controlled by jogo de bicho, the animal lottery. A further two schools had suspected links to militia, and one had strong links to drug traffickers. Jogo de bicho – illegal in its own right in Brazil – is widely believed to be used for laundering money from other criminal trades, including financing Rio’s militia and drug traffickers.
A similar probe in 2010 led Brazil’s federal police to arrest former Vila Isabel president Wilson Vieira Alves, sentencing him to 23 years in jail for smuggling, corruption and gang formation. The same investigation discovered that Mangueira, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, Mocidade Independente, União and Viradouro had all received money from Edson dos Santos, a senior partner in a metals company that acted as a front to launder money from animal lottery schemes.
But the illegal trade is already well-established and investigations lack lasting consequences. An operation in 1993 saw the arrests of Imperatriz Leopoldinense’s Luizinho Drummond, Beija-Flor patron Anísio Abraão David, and Vila Isabel’s Airton Jorge Guimarães, senior figures who were jointly accountable for 53 deaths. But by 1996, all three has been granted parole or clemency.
Murders and Death Threats
In September 2016, Portela’s vice-president Marcos Vieira was gunned down in the city’s North Zone. He had previously been charged with murder, although cleared, as well as arrested for links to gangs and militia in the area.
Vieira is not an isolated incident: in 2014, Salgueiro’s vice-president Marcello da Cunha Freire was shot as he left his office in the evening. Although Freire’s standing as an official in one of the city’s football clubs led some to question whether his death was linked to samba, the school’s 2007 vice-chair was also murdered, and another member killed in 2004.
In 2012, Salgueiro chair Regina Celi, the only female chair of a special group school, began receiving death threats after speaking out against the control of bicheiros, dominant players in the illegal animal lotteries. Unfortunately, there are no signs of change for Rio’s samba school funding on the horizon.