The Reformed Favela Drug Queen Behind Brazil's Favorite Telenovela
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."