The Reformed Favela Drug Queen Behind Brazil's Favorite Telenovela

A fresh start for Bibi
A fresh start for Bibi
Boris Herrmann

RIO DE JANEIRO — Every night at around 9 o'clock, Fabiana Escobar sits down in front of the TV and watches her life play out on the small screen: whether the police haul her away or her husband cheats on her again; how she beats up his lover; how the cocaine goes out and the bags of money come in. Recently, she watched herself bathe in a room full of gold coins, just like Scrooge McDuck. "I thought it was chic," Escobar says.

"A novela das nove," or the daily telenovela at 9 p.m., is an institution in Brazil. Around 50 million tune in every evening. Everybody in this TV-crazed country is talking about what is currently happening in the final episodes of A Força do Querer, or Edge of Desire, the current telenovela shown. The plot is based on a true story: Escobar's life.

At home in the favela Rocinha, one of the largest slums in Rio de Janeiro, everyone calls her Bibi Perigosa, or Bibi the dangerous. And Escobar (no relation to late Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar) too has adopted the name, although she no longer has anything to do with the seedy world of drugs and money, now earning her living legally. "Unfortunately, it's significantly less than before," she says.

Fabiana Escobar has kept the name Bibi Perigosa because she likes it — and because, with the exception of her mother, no ones knows who Fabiana Escobar is. "I'm still dangerous," she says with a nearly coquettish look.

But there is no longer any need to be scared of the 37-year-old woman. Her voice is hoarse, her eyes alert, her humor self-deprecating. And her laugh echoes through the whole neighborhood. She's immediately likable.

In the steep alleyways of Rocinha, where on rainy days the sewage runs with the torrents, dangerous Bibi moves self-assuredly and elegantly on high stiletto heels. She wears mostly black clothes and thick gold chains, with purple lipstick and long earrings. The look says: gangster-bride-with-a-heart. When we meet, her hand is wrapped in a bandage after she'd hit her adult son. He had it coming, she says, because he's been running around dealing drugs again. She broke a finger with a left hook. "Super annoying," she says. "Next time I'll grab a stick."

Her son is named Celso. His name is tattooed on her arm, next to her daughter's and a dead lover's. Celso is 20 and meets all the criteria of a cliché favela problem child. "It probably couldn't be otherwise with these influences," she says. Many of his friends are small-time dealers. His mother did not earn her nickname by being coy. His father has been in prison for nine years. "Celso already fired a gun in the air for the first time as a baby, and as a kid he had to escape the police with us," Bibi recalls.

The only power, beloved and feared

In Rio, Celso's father and Bibi's ex-husband, Saulo de Sá Silva, is better known as O Barão do Pô, the cocaine baron. In the early 2000s, he was something like the viceroy of this city's drug trade, the closest confidante to the top boss: Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, nicknamed Nem.

In their best days, Nem and Saulo supplied half of Rio with cocaine. They led the cartel "Amigos dos Amigos' (friends of friends), employed around 500 armed men, bribed the police and politicians. They ruled Rocinha with its some 70,000 residents like a parallel state. In the favela's labyrinth of alleyways, they were the only power, beloved and feared. They took care of jobs, electricity, satellite television, local transport, the best parties and jurisprudence — all the things the government never took care of in the favela. But Nem and Saulo also decided who lived and who died.

It was Bibi Perigosa's task to count and manage the money, a couple hundred thousand euros worth every week. "I kept the empire going," she says.

Now when she, like millions of Brazilians, watches the telenovela, Nem is not called Nem and Saulo isn't Saulo, even if Bibi is Bibi. But she can predict the show's ending, and it's not a happy one. How much truth is in the fiction? "Let's see if they dare to take on the torture."

After Saulo and Nem were arrested, Bibi Perigosa decided to start her life anew. But first she had to purge everything that weighed on her conscience. She began to talk about her fate in a blog, and when she noticed how much interest there was in her life, she wrote a book. A significant portion of what is currently Brazil's most successful television series is based on her memoir.

Rochina is colorful, but life can be grim. — Photo: bsas4u

Saulo still faces 18 years in prison ahead of him. She says she used to visit him, but she soon discovered that he still dealt from his cell. They divorced. She wanted nothing more to do with him. "Saulo brought destruction to the family," she says.

At 17, Bibi was blind to it all. Back then, she was still named Fabiana and wanted to be a social worker. She did not come from Rocinha, but rather from the middle-class district of Rio Comprido. Her mother was an elementary school teacher. Her father worked at the state statistical office and she studied social sciences. In her penultimate semester, she married her longtime school friend, the postman Saulo de Sá Silva, who was then 19. She had a son and dreamed of having more children, a small house, more money. Saulo meant well when he began dealing. He was arrested for the first time in 2005, accused of distributing drugs with the letters.

A couple of months later, he removed the air-conditioner unit from his cell and escaped through the hole. After that, he was no longer a small-time dealer, but a fugitive. He found employment in Nem's empire, where the police could not get to him, and was promoted to cocaine baron. Fabiana Escobar joined in. She doesn't see herself as an accomplice, but rather as a person duped. "Leaving was not an option."

As a cocaine baroness, she suddenly possessed more than she could have dreamed in her middle-class Brazilian life: a big car, real jewelry, an in-house cinema, champagne, a swimming pool. It was life like in the telenovelas. When she wanted to make Saulo happy, she rented a helicopter and dropped rose petals over Rocinha. She says many girls coming from the middle class are fascinated by the lives of gangster bosses. And she would know.

From both theory and practice

Women are often employed as couriers in the Brazilian drug industry. "Tráfico formiguinha," Bibi Perigosa calls it. "Trafficking ants." The prisons are overflowing with women — 35,000 are currently behind bars, two-thirds of them for drug offenses. "But women are arrested because they are at home when the police come and find their husbands' stash," says Bibi Perigosa.

She knows this both from theory and practice. As a student, she wrote a term paper about it: How families change when one parent is in prison. Today, she can research the topic in her own living room. As an author, she would like to warn girls in Brazil against a career like hers. "All money from drug trading is damned," she would tell them. "In this world, you're not treated like women, but like high-class hookers."

Although she has renounced that life, she still lives in Rocinha, where the only cultural center closed after last year's Olympics. Bibi has since founded a small film production company that employs only locals. She thinks she has to make up for something. In her living room next to the television and the couch is an old makeup mirror and a heavily loaded drying rack. The luxury of the past is gone, but she has never been happier.

"It feels good," she says, "to sleep in peace."

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]


Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.



• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.



Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.


The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️


€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.


Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️


"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.


Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

DO YOU FIND PEOPLE WHO WRITE IN ALL CAPS PARTICULARLY ANNOYING? Feel free to COMPLAIN, or otherwise let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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