November 26th, 2010

Sorry to break into the American holiday weekend and all that, but in case you´ve not been noticing, the news in Rio is of a near-war with automatic weapons between favela drug gangs and paramilitary police. Death toll variously estimated between 14 and 30.

The clash was sparked whern the Policia Militar moved into the Complexo do Alemão, one of the last favelas to be ¨pacified¨ – note the COIN language.

Previously, the gangs have been able to relocate, but no more, so they are cornered. The fight is a last ditch stand. The gangs are using diversionary tactics outside the favelas, and there are burning buses all over the place. Reinforcements have been brought in – even a battalion of Marines with light armour, which helps in clearing truck roadblocks. (No, I have not seen this first-hand and am not going anywhere near the fighting if I can help it. I´m a blogger, not a reporter. Hats off to real reporters, especially those who put themselves in harm´s way, and most especially those who don´t return.)

London Daily Mail

Of course the outcome isn´t in doubt, and the resistance is pointless and surprising. It shows the extent to which the favelas have become enclaves of criminal self-government outside the reach of the law. It´s perfectly safe to take a guided favela tour (you´d be mad to go in by yourself): the guides have undertandings with the warlords that the gringo tourists are not to be molested, which would bring in the police and disturb the smooth running of the drugs business.

I´m not at all clear how this strange situation developed. The original purpose of police forces was after all to control the violence of the urban poor. Hell´s Kitchen in 19th-century New York and Whitechapel in turn-of-the 20th-century London were violent places, but the police were always present, trying with variable success to keep a lid on crime. Organized crime leaders could often buy impunity; systematically so during Prohibition. But this sort of corrupt coexistence is still a long way from true no-go areas as in Rio. Offhand I can´t think of another example in the world, though Nairobi´s million-strong Kibera slum has no police station.

Explanations welcomed. It must have something to do with the history of inequality in Brazil, always a matter of money and region rather than explicitly of race (blacker usually means poorer and northern). When migrants started moving from the poverty-stricken, overpopulated north-east of Brazil to the booming cities of the south, the shanty towns they set up were I suspect treated as outside the pyschological city limits – non-persons in non-places. This is the background for the pathological death squads murdering street children. The forces of integration – work, electricity and culture (samba schools and TV) – have recently been counterbalanced by the boom in the drugs trade, notoriously run from the favelas.

The left, noting the shaky commitment of the Brazilian police to the rule of law and their association with right-wing politics and the death squads, apparently used to object to police pacification of favelas. So many well-intentioned people supported the continuance of no-go areas whose inhabitants, all Brazilian citizens, were denied the core Hobbesian state guarantees of their fundamental rights to security of life and property.

This was wrong. Restoring a police presence, even a questionable one, is a crucial step to ending a class war. The heavy casualties today are the price of decades of looking the other way.

Update 28 November midday

TV images from a helicopter show that the police have reached the highest point in the Alemão, the roof of the cable car station. They are brandishing the flags of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro state, à la Iwo Jima (out in the open, so resistance must have stopped). I am not making any of this up.

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7 Responses to “War in the slums”

  1. George says:

    The wiki on favela is surprisingly useful. Also, if you use Google Earth streetview, you can also get surprisingly close to the favelas, but more importantly, you see how integrated they are with middle-class neighborhoods, in that you can literally cross the street and be on the outer border of a favela, which are often on hillsides, surrounded by the middle-class.

    My theory on Brazil and favelas is sort of wrapped up in general South American wealth inequality and persistence of European privilege. What I found fascinating is that Brazil’s top tax bracket is 27.5%, although it has a VAT of 20%, with capital gains taxes at 15%. More importantly, as I understand it, Brazil has a serious problem with tax scofflaws, so even at relatively low rates, it has serious difficult collecting tax revenues from the wealthy. I don’t think its coincidental that you have a public sector that has difficulty collecting revenues and its attendant inability to manage public safety. You can argue about chicken or the egg here, but I also don’t think its coincidental that the wealthy in Brazil, and many other SA countries, have little if anything invested in the notion of common good, instead avoiding taxes, enriching themselves through that and corruption, and using the proceeds to build extensive walled compounds and private security forces. I mean, Sao Paulo has the largest number of private helicopters in service, often used simply to commute to work.

    My larger point here is that if create an environment where the public sector is starved by the wealthy, it starts an avalanche of failure which creates not only an ungovernable state, but something that resembles less a state than a somewhat functional set of private fiefdoms with a putative national identity.

    The question is, are we really that far away from that here?

  2. Randy Paul says:

    The middle class in Brazil isn’t that much better. I was at a party about a year after the Candelaria massacre in which a woman referred to the victims thusly:

    They’re not children any more. They should kill them all.

    I asked her if she really believed murdering homeless children as they were trying to sleep was the solution to the problem and she said that she wasn’t interested in solutions, just cleaning the streets.

    The twin problems here are corruption and impunity. In the case of the police, primarily the former. There is precious little for them to risk by killing a few gang members/narcotraficantes and if a few innocent favelados get in the way and get killed, well, the attitude amongst much of the public is that they shouldn’t have been there anyway.

    The arrogance of the upper levels of the command structure of the police is often appalling. A personal experience of mine I believe is a good example. My wife’s brother-in-law is an oral surgeon for the policia militar in Minas Gerais. A friend of his was interested in buying a car from a man who was a delegado (roughly a precinct commander) in Belo Horizonte. The car was being kept on the grounds of a clothing factory owned by the delegado’s brother-in-law. It was at night and we went in the delegado’s car to the factory, which was within the city.

    When we got there, the guards were busy trying to round up the two doberman pinschers guarding the location. The delegado grew impatient, pulled out his Browning and fired three times in the air to get the dogs away. This was done in a city of three million.

    That being said, the heart of the problem still goes with the horrible social inequities in the country. I don’t have enough time to go into it in detail, but here’s a point to ponder: Brazil got it’s independence from Portugal bloodlessly. This is good in one respect, but the problem was that first it was a monarchy, then it became a republic, in my humble opinion, with much of the monarchical tradition still firmly entrenched, especially in the Northeast, a region rife with Coronelismo.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mbfromhb, said: Blogfeed: War in the slums: Sorry to break into the American holiday weekend and all that, but in case you´ve no… [...]

  4. Steve says:

    Terrific movie: City of God

  5. What I think is amazing here is that we can look at a city where millions live in slums, and be persuaded to watch the dancing ball of the drug war. That city represents millions of crimes, many on a daily basis, many by the rich, many far more appalling than selling drugs, but all of that we can regard as an unavoidable baseline, a hardly discernible background to the drama of the drug war we’re seeing.

    When the ‘legitimate’ economy or society can’t supply the need, whether it be a poor person who needs drugs but can’t go to the doctor, or a rich person who needs cheap labor and corrupts the hiring hall to get it, the illegitimate economy will.

    The actors are all inspired by heavy flows of money but the reactions can be quite different. For example, when Prohibition came in, the Canadians built distilleries in Windsor, while across the river, in Detroit, the Americans built police forces and high-powered boats for smuggling. The Canadians gained a large amount of ‘legitimate’ money to build even more legitimate institutions of government, and the Americans ended up with one of the most corrupt police forces in the country.

    This is not the end of anything. This is the beginning of an incredible struggle, in which dozens of impoverished cities of over 10 million population, most in the southern hemisphere, will present their bill of reckoning to the northern economies which have derived most of the benefit from the industrial economy of AGW. Think of this as the opening scene from The Battle of Algiers.

  6. Anderson says:

    Why aren’t those people wearing helmets?

  7. valuethinker says:


    1. because of a problem of training and discipline – US Army worked very hard before Iraq to make sure soldiers wore helmets even in extreme heat. It’s a tough one, but it can be done.

    2. more likely it’s because the picture is in some sense posed.