Gimme Shelter: Gangs, Violence, Corruption, and Exclusion in Brazil’s Favelas

I wrote this for a class on Brazil’s ongoing transition from “developing” to “developed” country. Some snippets:

Residents of Brazil’s favelas (and other slum-like urban settlements, which will be distinguished below) exist in a strange limbo of legality. They often have no title to the lands they occupy, their living is often made in informal economies, and they are often subject to the authority of violent gangs or ineffective and corrupted police forces, judiciaries, and political institutions. Because these settlements are associated with “illegality” in its most comprehensive sense, there have been many efforts to eradicate them from cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, especially since the ascendance of powerful drug gangs in recent decades. However, although state “pacification” efforts have recently been intensifying, there have also been attempts to formally incorporate the favelas and their residents into Brazilian society.

Favelas were established as a response to the availability of economic opportunities in the rapidly expanding cities of a rapidly industrializing Brazil. For much of their history, they have been ignored, disdained, and neglected by the state and society in general. This has led to creation of political institutions (such as residents’ associations), but also to continuing legacies of “machine” politics where favelados vote for elitist candidates with the expectation of clientelistic favors in return (Gay, 1994). As Alves and Evanson put it (2011) favelas “follow the money” – they go wherever the economic opportunities are…

Regarding the dramatic increase in violence in the favelas in recent years, Gay (2010) writes that it “can be attributed to the globalization of the illegal drug trade and, in particular, to the establishment of transshipment routes through Brazil for Andean-produced cocaine. More than anything, I would argue, it was the arrival of cocaine and its ensuing habits and addictions that provided criminalized elements with the means to support their operations. And it was the immense profits to be made from the drug trade that generated intense and bloody rivalries for increased market share between increasingly well-armed and violent factions and the police.”

Historically, there have been examples of successful organization of favela residents into political action groups that have successfully pressured the state to address some of their concerns. However, the vast majority of these cases are tales of “bico de agua” (“water-tap”) politics – stories of maximum mobilization and pressure from favelados only to obtain the most minimal, meager concessions from the state.

As in other countries throughout the region, players in the international drug trade have been usurping the power of the state in terms of representing the most excluded members of society. They are able to provide employment, justice, security, and other goods and services when most Brazilians consider that to be the proper role of the state.

As Alves and Evanson (2011) point out, the term “pacification” has been used as a euphemism for violent removal processes since the earliest days of the favelas. While the more modern “pacifications” have been more humane and in some cases, more successful, finding ways to combat the social, economic, and political exclusion experienced by favela residents continues to be a challenge.

Drug gangs are often as infiltrated into high-level law enforcement and government as they are into the communities in which they operate (Naím, 2012). As traffickers move into other forms of highly-profitable criminal activities, strengthening institutions and implementing social programs must be a key part of any new policies to reduce the detrimental effects of organized crime and lack of political representation in the favelas.

Read the rest here (pdf). 



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