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Project January 17, 2020

Rio's Evangelical Drug Gangs

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Brazil is in the midst of a little-known but far-reaching religious transformation. In 1980, there were just 8 million evangelical Christians. Now there are more than 60 million—nearly a third of the population. Long the country with the world's largest Catholic population, Brazil may soon have the second-largest evangelical population (the United States being number one).

The wave of conversions has produced a whole new power structure in Brazil. Evangelicals now hold one in six seats in Congress, far more than any single political party. President Jair Bolsonaro was baptized in Jerusalem. This new elite has staved off the legalization of abortion, the expansion of gay rights, and the decriminalization of marijuana in Brazil. But perhaps the most dramatic transformation can be observed in the poorest parts of the country, where the rule of law is tenuous, and gangs stand in for governments—places where evangelical Christianity is becoming a kind of state religion.

To be sure, some find in Jesus the courage to quit the drug trade. Others, though, have expressed their faith by waging a kind of holy war against Umbanda and Candomblé, the once-popular mash-ups of Catholicism with beliefs brought over by African slaves. Just as the church has seeped into the drug trade, meanwhile, the drug trade has seeped into the church. Some pastors allegedly take a "tithe" from their underworld acolytes.

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