The People's Police


Private security for the poor in Brazil's favelas:

Startling transformations like Roquete Pinto's are increasingly visible across Rio, as for-profit "militias" made up of active and former police officers, private security guards, off-duty prison guards and firefighters evict drug gangs from slums where violence used to be out of control….

In this city of 6 million people, one of the world's most violent, "the police provide security for the rich" and "the militias are the security of the poor," said Marina Maggessi, a congresswoman and a former senior drug-control official. She has mixed feelings about the militias, saying they represent the "collapse of the state."

First gaining strength in 2003 as an alternative to ineffective, often corrupt police, the illegal security forces have mushroomed since late last year and now control about 90 of Rio's 600 "favelas," Maggessi said. Success in slums like Roquete Pinto, meanwhile, fuels their expansion into others.

In the past, the favelas' most prominent private alternative to the police have been the drug lords themselves. It would be interesting to hear how the transition from mafia justice to militia justice took place, and why the security companies have taken hold in some areas and not others.

Another question: The article describes a community leader who "refuses to acknowledge the existence of the militias, saying the cleanup is entirely the work of the police, even though there is no station in the slum, and not a single officer or patrol car was seen during two recent visits." So is this guy on bad terms with the local militia, or is he friendly but unwilling to discuss them with outsiders? Either way, there's an interesting story there, if some enterprising journalist in Brazil wants to ferret it out and tell it.

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  1. Sounds like the folks in The Bluffs section of Atlanta should take note. Perhaps a militia to keep the Atlanta Police out of their neighborhood.


  2. “Critics say the city risks going the way of Colombia, where violent paramilitary groups that sprang up to battle guerrillas came to hold more power than authorities in some areas.”

    That’s nonsensical. The gangs of drug dealers already have more power than the “authorities” in most slums. Actually, drug dealers in fact own some Rio and S?o Paulo slums. Also, some of these places are even more secure than the rich areas, which the state supposedly watchs over.

    “First gaining strength in 2003 as an alternative to ineffective, often corrupt police, the illegal security forces have mushroomed since late last year and now control about 90 of Rio’s 600 “favelas,” Maggessi said. Success in slums like Roquete Pinto, meanwhile, fuels their expansion into others.”

    When in the last year a war broke in some slums of Rio, some were proud to say that that was an obvious failure of the market in security services. That was and is obviously not true.


    Well, I want to say some things.

    First of all, I’m Brazilian. I don’t live in Rio. I live in Recife, a city at the northeast of Brazil, another extreme crime-ridden place. I can thus testify that this is a great improvement. We in Brazil sometimes are more afraid of the police than of the criminals. Police officers are generally corrupt, inept, and, when they do act, violent. In some places here, if you are walking around at night not carrying your ID and the police officers happen to find you, odds are that you are going to be humilliated and even spanked. I’ve met honest policemen too, but mostly they’re co-opted by the corrupt ones. It’s good to see that some are now using their abilities to actually help people.

    People in Brazilian slums live at the very margin of society. That sometimes is used as a metaphor. But here the situation is really extreme. They can’t depend upon the police, and can’t depend upon the drug dealers, who also extract their “taxes” from the ordinary citizens. They also can’t defend themselves, because firearms are prohibited in the country (whereas criminals have M16s and grenade and rocket launchers).

    They can’t take loans, because their property in the slums is not recognized due to zoning regulations (they are in “irregular occupations,” a term that can be used only by cynics, because to say that a slum like Rocinha, home of 200,000 people, is made of “irregulars” is a pathetic offense). They do not have a sewer. Their electricity is “stolen” from electrical poles in avenues (though I don’t think “stolen” is the proper term, since the monopolistic electric company would not cable their houses anyway). They have nothing. Now at least they are having some security (however far it is from the ideal).

    I think it was a week ago when a college student was killed by a “lost bullet”, reminiscent of gang battles in Rio. That prompted a national reaction to violence. But normally the reactions are just some inane manifestations calling for peace and for an end to violence. To date, that has never worked. We aren’t even allowed to buy bulletproof vests (we must ask for a special permission at the Federal Police), we can’t expect that the drug dealers and police officers will suddenly start to behave nicely.

    There are some conservatives who call for even more police violence after those tragedies, as if we haven’t had it with violence. But that hasn’t and won’t work either.

    The leaders of the militias have very good reasons to hide themselves. The state could crush them at any time, as they’re seen with very good eyes by the people that live in the slums, but are seen with suspicion by outsiders. I think this is a wonderful development and hope more of those organizations spring up.

    – Erick

  3. Any information where the drug peddlers have moved? I don’t suppose they’ve changed their line of business.

  4. Watch “City of God”. The police collude openly with the drug lords. So, a drug lord prospers until either another drug lord pays the police to bust them or they get too powerful and need to be destroyed. This creates constant power flux, since a drug lord is always either growing or dying.

    A militia could provide some stability, but even a militia would need to build relationships with the drug lords in and near their area, just like they’d have to do with nearby police. If they can keep out of the business of policing vice, they might stand a chance.

  5. Much as I enjoyed City of God, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t actually set in a favela — that is, in a self-built, self-organized squatter neighborhood. It was set in a neighborhood created by the government for the precise purpose of offering an alternative to the favelas.

  6. Erick,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I first fell in love with South America on a Argentina/Brazil trip in 2000. The evening before my husband and I left Buenos Aires for Rio we met a fabulous gay couple who said we must have protection in Rio. They gave us the number of an ex-police officer and we decided to employ his service as much for translation (We speak Spanish and French between us and Portuguese is a language that I’d only heard a few times.) and car service as protection- the price was affordable for us and fair for him. We got to Rio and the “bodyguard” met us at the airport. When he learned that we lived in Dallas, he said that his Brazilian friend Tony G. lived in Dallas. I never laughed to myself about somebody asking a “do you know” question again. I was very close to his Dallas friend and other friends of his in Miami.

    I felt very safe with our “bodyguard” and even better, we were afforded opportunities to see the area in ways we never could have on our own. The only downside of our private arrangement was that we got trashed in a non-tourist dance club and I bruised my ass pretty badly-almost injuring his wife too- when I took a fall down some crowded stairs.

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