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Last month, Brazil united to celebrate Carnaval, its annual week-long celebration dedicated to dance, music, and uninhibited Brazilianness, right before the traditional Christian holiday of Lent (Quaresma). 

2023 had the biggest Carnaval since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This event brought a return to normalcy for Brazilians after three years of cancelled or restricted Carnavals due to the pandemic. Brazil was among the countries worst hit by the disease, due in part to former President Jair Bolsonaro resisting public health advice, routinely promoting unscientific remedies, and pushing vaccine conspiracies. 

Economic and Political Impact of Carnaval

Carnaval has helped bring in needed economic revenue. This year, 46 million people gathered in Brazil’s cities to attend Carnaval. About 10 percent of the yearly attendees are foreigners. Carnaval businesses generated around $1.7 billion in revenue, with more than half coming from Rio de Janeiro.

Carnaval also brought Brazilians together during a time of deep political tensions, which peaked in the January 8th riots by far-right supporters of Bolsonaro in Brasilia this year. 

Thousands of rioters took control of the headquarters of all three branches of Brazil’s government in its national capital, prompting newly-elected left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (better known as Lula) to fire security officials and launch an investigation into the riots. The Military Police (Polícia Militar) made hundreds of arrests and conducted several warrant-backed raids on individuals present in Brasilia on January 8th.

Numerous national, state, and municipal politicians, including cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, and various state governors and mayors, joined the street activities at Carnaval to ease tensions. They participated in blocos (Block Parties), with First Lady Rosângela Lula da Silva (known as Janja) participating in a bloco in Salvador, in the Northeastern state of Bahia.

Despite the positive economic activity and socio-political reconciliation generated by Carnaval nearly every year, there remains an under-studied, crooked side to the world’s biggest party. Indeed, Carnaval has deep ties to criminal groups in and outside Brazil. 

Underlying Criminality

Criminal groups use Carnaval blocos and cultural activities to raise and launder funds, as well as engage in drug and human trafficking. In Salvador (Bahia), the Civil Police, in collaboration with the special federal investigations group Draco, has been investigating local gangs participating in theft and illicit trafficking during blocos. The groups use the noise and crowded nature of the blocos to sell drugs and steal luxury goods from attendees. 

According to Statista, nearly half of all women who participated in Carnaval, as of February 2020, reported being sexually harassed. As told to me by Brazilian police, criminals kidnap female participants, most often targeting sex workers who make a bulk of their yearly earnings during Carnaval. In 2007, the International Labor Organization and the News Agency for Children’s Rights in Brazil revealed that child sex trafficking and prostitution occur at Carnaval. Human rights groups continue to fight against the prominence of sexual crimes during the holiday.

Nationwide, the Federal Highway Police (PRF) has launched Operação Carnaval this year, targeting drug manufacturers and vendors in the Northeastern state of Ceará. Federal authorities made over $1 million in seizures, including core ingredients and drug stocks. Vehicles entering the large coastal cities of Fortaleza and Belém, both hosting sizable Carnaval activities, were inspected by the PRF. Raids supported by Ministry of Justice warrants were also carried out by Polícia Militar, resulting in further captures of drug products and weapons. Federal authorities worked with state and municipal police services, like the Civil Police of Ceará, to coordinate operations and arrests.

Yet, gangs have used new schemes to earn and launder money at Carnaval. In Recife, the largest city in the state of Pernambuco, Recife Civil Police intercepted ID-forging schemes on February 16th, 2023. Through criminal court warrants, Draco was then able to carry out a series of raids on five houses, seizing machines, credit cards, bulk cash, cell phones, and counterfeit tickets and bracelets to enter Carnaval. The group was manufacturing and selling the fake Carnaval passes to attendees. 

Although police operations during Carnaval have increased, they are not the first attempt by the Brazilian government and justice system to counter organized crime’s meddling in the celebration. 

Police Operations

In 2007, as part of Operação Furação, the Brazilian federal police alleged that there was corruption involved in the national samba competition held in Rio. Business tycoon Aniz Abrahão David (known as Anísio da Beija-Flor), with ties to organized crime, had pressured samba judges with gunmen to make Beija-Flor win the competition. Favourable judges were planted in the jury, while others received death threats. 

The Beija-Flor school had won the world-renowned samba competition that year out of 13 finalist schools, and David served as Beija-Flor’s president. David’s cartel, known as the “Mafia dos Bingos” (Bingos’ Mafia), was dismantled by a series of police raids in 2007. The intelligence operation was revealed in an exposé by the national newspaper O Globo the same year.

Similarly, in 2018, the Public Prosecutor of Brazil revealed a corruption scheme involving Carnaval infrastructure in Rio, once again incriminating Alves and Crivella. Mayor Crivella, who was largely responsible for organizing Rio’s Carnaval that year, received bribes from Sagre Consultoria Empresarial (SCE) wanting to assemble the attendee boxes for the parades on the central Avenida Intendente Magalhães. 

SCE presented overpriced bids for the structures, then subcontracted to another company, Rio Esporte Show Eventos Ltda., who overcharged its services again. The Public Prosecutor’s investigation revealed that Rio Esporte would “subcontract for overpriced amounts and carry out future transfers of amounts diverted from public coffers.” The case illustrated the close link between corrupt politicians, organized crime, and Carnaval.

The Public Prosecutor’s investigation revealed that Rio Esporte would “subcontract for overpriced amounts and carry out future transfers of amounts diverted from public coffers.” The case illustrated the close link between corrupt politicians, organized crime, and Carnaval.

Finally, in 2020, businessman Rafael Alves allegedly colluded with Rio mayor Marcelo Crivella to ensure that samba schools Grande Rio and Império Serrano, both from the Rio metropolitan region, make it to the finalist “Grupo Especial” (Special Group). Crivella was arrested in December 2020 on corruption charges. Alves also had ties to organized crime groups, some of which were linked to the Acadêmicos do Salgueiro, historically one of the largest samba schools at Carnaval.

Is Security at Carnaval Sufficient?

As shown in the aforementioned criminal cases, some steps are already taken by the Brazilian authorities, most notably the Polícia Militar, to ensure safety and security during the week of Carnaval. Thousands of police officers, private security guards, manned roadblocks, and state-of-the-art security cameras are all over the biggest cities in the country to prevent crimes from ruining the attendees’ experience. These activities should continue, as they help ensure attendees are not physically threatened during Carnaval. 

However, the most critical criminal activity surrounding Carnaval occurs in the periphery, and cannot be detected through wide public monitoring. Police operations and Public Prosecutor referrals are important but fail to capture the full scope of organized crime’s hand in Carnaval’s success. There should be a public investigation into dark money in Carnaval, and global companies and visitors should think twice about their participation in Carnaval. 

Policy Recommendations

Federal authorities should prompt international cooperation involving the Organization of American States’ Secretariat for Multidimensional Security, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, INTERPOL, and international non-governmental organizations focused on studying and apprehending organized crime, such as InSight Crime and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Likewise, Carnaval’s sponsor companies should launch their own internal investigations into their contributions’ potential link to organized crime and corruption, contributing to better environmental, social, and corporate (ESG) governance. 

The Polícia Militar, in coordination with Draco, Civil Police services, and other relevant public security stakeholders, should also continue warrant-backed raids against organized crime groups engaging in money laundering and drug and human trafficking operations surrounding Carnaval. Last but not least, Carnaval attendees should consider the legal and ethical implications of their involvement in the holiday, especially regarding their potential use of drugs and alcohol, participation in blocos, and their involvement with the dance academies, all of which have historically tied with organized crime groups. 

Despite all of this, Carnaval should be cherished and defended, not only due to its economic and socio-political externalities but for its immense contribution to Brazilian cultural heritage. To ensure the holiday’s survival, criminality underlying Carnaval should be rooted out through government action and further independent investigation into the ties between the celebration and illegal finance. If not addressed, these problems may threaten the existence of Carnaval itself and endanger its moral integrity.

Edited by Osama Alshantti

Joseph Bouchard

Joseph is a Senior Writer with Spheres of Influence, covering geopolitics, crime, and democracy in the Western hemisphere. He has spent over a year in Latin America, notably working as a freelance journalist...