Escadinha, photo by Robson de Freitas.

Here continues the article series about legendary outlaws of Brazil, the Robin Hoods and Dick Turpins of this country. In this text the turn has come to the Rio shanty town bandit known as Escadinha.

The Most Famous Favela Bandit

José Carlos dos Reis Encina, better known as Escadinha (Por: Little Stair), is probably the outlaw from the favela (Por: shanty town) morros surrounded by the most true and untrue stories. His time as leader of the drug traffic in the favela Juramento was followed by incredible escapes and a dramatic assassination. Here is his story.

King of the Hill

Young Zé Carlos would grow up in the Rio suburb Vaz Lobo. Born in 1956 he was the son of O Chileno, the leader of a community called Manoel Encina. His nickname he earned when the restless boy made the life so difficult for a haidresser he cut his hair so bad it came in steps, hereafter his friends called him Escadinha, the Little Stair. Already 16 years old he started to get involved in the drug traffic in the Juramento favela. Two years later he was arrested for the first time, the sentence of illegal weapon possession he escaped by paying bail. As his crime record grew over the years, his frequent visits to prison would make him meet other major players in the drug trade such as o Bagulhão (Big Needle), o Professor (The Teacher) and o Gordo (the Fat One), together they would form the first real organized criminal faction in Rio: O Comando Vermelho (En: The Red Command often abbreviated as CV). Contact with leftist political prisoners supposedly also created a small political agenda (hence the Red). By the 1980’s he became known as the most dangerous criminal in Rio, at the same time social involvement and refusal to allow children to enter his ranks he also became very popular and almost legendary in several communities.

Great Escapes

Ilha Grande today is a tropical paradise island and a major tourist attraction; Here you can experience almost untouched rainforests, clear water and white sands. During the major part of the 20th century it housed a high security prison called Dois Rios, when political prisoners started to be kept here during the 1960’s contact was made between drug traffickers and leftist political activists. After two years as prisoner on the island, in 1983 he risked a successful escape in a rowing boat. He was only caught in 1985 in the the favela Jacarezinho, his good reputation supposedly made it easy for him to find refuge. After being shot during another escape attempt the event took place that would make him a celebrity criminal, the helicopter escape. On December the 31st in 1985 after an incredible helicopter rescue, he was brought to freedom by member of his faction. In the helicopter were among others O Gordo. He ended up back in Juramento where he assumed his old lifestyle.

Capture and New Career

Only four years later he was caught, after sentence he was now kept in the Frei Caneca prison. After a failed rescue attempt, that included hi-jacking a power station, it seems like he conformed to prison and managed a semi-open regime after accepting voluntary working for the prison administration (a quite common practice in Brazil). He quite quickly became the vice president of a taxi cooperation in Zona Norte. After refusing the offer of leadership in Juramento hos old faction members became his enemies.


On September the 23rd in 2004 Escadinha was going to work from his current prison in Bangu, when his car was perfurated by bullets from an assault rifle he was killed. Two unidentified men on a motorbike blocked the car and fired 4 shots. The crime has never been solved, some theories suggest that the responsible were the CV, others that it was internal fighting in his taxi cooporation or a criminal vendetta not related to CV at all. So ended the life of perhaps the most famous favela criminal of them all, when Escadinha died he was 49 years old.

Escadinha and the Legend

No doubt is that José Carlos dos Reis Encina was a dangerous criminal and a public enemy, but the memory of Escadinha has been preserved in many people’s memory as something else. He is perhaps a symbol of resistance to the law and what it represents. His supposed care for the communities where he lived and operated makes him appear almost like a good bandit, a Robin Hood of some sort. In many Cariocas’ (person living in Rio call themselves Cariocas) memories he represents a distant past where bandits and a political leftist movement joined their causes. When he started out, it was in the midst of the fascist dictatorship that lasted between 1968 and 1985, the police was also a symbol of repression. How much of his altruistic nature is true can be discussed, one thing is for sure and that his life is stuff for legends.

Sources and for further reading:
Diário de um detento no Brasil – Escadinha
Folha de São Paulo – Dupla mata Escadinha no Rio de Janeiro
Extra – A vida e a morte de um dos maiores traficantes do estado

Lampião and his band.

Lampião and his band.

All countries have them; outlaws and criminals that have reached almost legendary status. Names like Spartacus, Robin Hood and Jesse James have sparked the imagination of both writers and ordinary people since thousands of years. In this article series I intend to write about some of these that have had their base in Brazil. I will start out with the most iconic of them all.

O Lampião – The King of Cangaços

Virgulino Ferreira da Silva was born in 1897 in a town called Serra Telhada in the state of Pernambuco. He received a decent education, the interest for politics and literature he aquired he would maintain throughout his life. After his father had been killed by the army he, supposedly in wrath, joined a band of cangaceiros. The Cangaço were a semi-revolutionary formation roaming the Northeast interior robbing and looting for food, extremely poor conditions and abusive land-owners were the main reasons to the existance of this movement. By 1921 he had assumed leadership of the band, a position he would keep until his death. His group of skilled guerilla-style warriors, that at times included more than 100 men, would make a presence in 8 northeastern states. He was given the nickname O Lampião which is Portuguese for kerosene lamp.

To Steal From the Rich and Give To the Poor – At Least For a While

Under his leadership him and his band started to gain fame as they also distributed what they had adquired to poor people in the regions they operated, o Lampião became known as a modern Robin Hood. They soon abandoned their chivalrous ways and started working for the government of Getúlio Vargas, after a move to the states of Bahia and Sergipe they survived as arms dealers. His status as outlaw varied over the years and with who was in power at the time, at one point he and his band were actually given uniforms and federal authority, from this moment he was referred to as Capitão (Captain) by his supporters. The last few years the band was actively hunted by the police, an activity received a lot of press even internationally. When Lampião and his band was caught and killed in 1938 they decapitated heads went on tour around parts of the Northeast, probably as a display from the people in power to show what happens if you defy them.

The Fashion That Conquered the World

One of the most notable aspects of the band was the way they dressed, decorated their weapons and used perfume. The trademark glasses Lampião wore was supposedly to hide the fact that he was blind on one eye, perhaps glasses also was seen as a symbol for learning and intelligence. O Lampião was a very vain man, and extremely conscious of the image he produced of himself; though it was only when he joined with a woman it took a really strong expression, together with his wife Maria Bonita he created a fashion that is alive until today. Even if most of the time were on the road they always brought with them a Singer sewing machine. The base for their clothes was the typical wear to the Sertão were they were from, they added amulets and medallions, wore rings and silk scarfs from Paris. The hair was long and they used vast amounts of French perfume. According to legend they police chasing them tracked them easily since the reflections of their many trinkets were seen from miles away and the scent of their perfume was so strong it was no match for the dogs in the hunting party to follow. The fame of the band actually made the fashion become popular in Hollywood where it founds its way into both pirate and cowboy movies. If you compare the image in this article with what Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean series is wearing, it is hard not see the resemblance. I will further develop the fashion part in another article.

After His Death He Became a Symbol

The English historian Eric Hobsbawm once called Lampião a social bandit who worked as a symbol of revenge for the many mistreated and abused people that was living in the Northeast of Brazil. Recent researchers have often painted a picture of a man more bent on cruelty and personal gain than on political justice. It is very hard to know how much is true about him; the forces against him painted a picture of the leader of a band that raped and pillaged with no discretion, for others he was a rebel fighting for the poor. Until today he remains an important symbol, during festivals it is common to dress in the flamboyant ways of his band. He is the most famous of all outlaws of Brazil.

Sources and for further reading:
Lampião e Maria Bonita: Amor e morte no cangaço
Lampião: Herói ou bandido?
Infonet – Lampião
Portal São Francisco: Lampião
– Pernambucano de Mello, F. “Guerreiros do Sol: Violência e Banditismo no Nordeste Brasileiro” (2004)
– Chandler, B.J. “Lampião – O Rei dos Cangaceiros” (1981)