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Everyday violence and resistance in Rio de Janeiro

David Kenyon

Joint International Relations PhD from King's College London and the University of São Paulo

23 February 2024

Rio de Janeiro is a complicated city. The striking Tijuca mountain ranges tower over the white sandy beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, this postcard image is beamed around the world and has garnered the city the deserved reputation of being one the most beautiful in the world. Unfortunately, behind this beauty lies much sadness; over the past 40 years, the Cidade Maravilhosa has been blighted by extreme rates of lethal violence due to the presence of different criminal groups and a highly violent police force.

Beyond the stunning views of the statue of Christ and the Sugarloaf Mountain sits a huge urban sprawl of disorganised development in the city’s northern and western zones where I conducted this study. Punctuated by mountains and small green spaces, the landscape is dominated by relatively low-rise housing and the odd private or social high-rise housing block. Much of this urban environment is home to the middle and low-income demographic, often failed by the state in terms of education, health, security and transport. These areas are dominated by criminal groups, whether that be Drug Trafficking Organisations (DTO), such as the Comando Vermelho, Terceiro Comando Puro, Amigos Dos Amigos, or one of the multiple milicias1. This research has explored the everyday experience of violence, fear and trauma of the police and residents in communities controlled by drug trafficking organisations and milicias in the city.

In my doctoral fieldwork, I have spoken to numerous people and heard their stories of violence and trauma. Residents living under the criminal groups of a DTO or milicia must follow their rules and customs or risk lethal punishment. Indeed, one resident of a milicia community relayed the story of a young man who had been expelled from the community after getting mixed up in stealing and common banditry. However, after a couple of years he had reformed. He had got his life back on the straight and narrow and moved into the community again. This though challenged the milicias’ control. On his child’s birthday, the milicias had him killed. Jane told me, “I heard the sound of a gunshot. When I went back, they had killed him”.

People living in milicia areas are scared to speak due to their connection to the police and state agents. Indeed, like DTO communities and the Lei de Trafico, residents in milicia areas must live under the Lei de Milicia. The violence is plural in nature and is used by the various actors to push their own ends. Residents often find themselves caught in the middle of this conflict, whether that be between the police and DTO, or between different criminal groups who are in conflict over territory and illegal economies. Diane relayed to me the terrifying story of the day when she and her family were stuck in a shootout between two rival DTOs.

There was a shootout so intense, so intense, so intense. Man, I remember I lived in a house with three rooms, my mum just prayed, asking for God…. We could see them exchanging gun fire… the gang shooting down the hill at the other gang. Following this, my mum made the decision to move to a different part of the community.– Diane, resident of a DTO community

It is not just the residents caught up in this conflict who suffer the consequences, it is also the police. A much-maligned group within carioca2 society, the police, highly violent themselves and often corrupt, however, are also people. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who are caught between doing the right thing and trying to survive. A military policeman illustrated this difficult tightrope, telling me how police officers “breath violence 24 hours a day. Why? He leaves his house and goes to work, he follows a series of safety protocols, from the moment he leaves… with his uniform, his equipment in the car or on the bus, whatever it is, crossing the city, sometimes crossing the state, with all this material where at any moment he could be a victim of violence. Victim or perpetrator, depending on the circumstance. And then he spends another 12 or 24 hours working with this violence and then he returns to his home, where he will go through this whole cycle again. So, look, this has an impact, but this impact really depends on each person's experience...”

Meu Nome É Favela - Dance show put on by the Ballet Manguinhos
'Meu Nome É Favela' - Dance show put on by the Ballet Manguinhos. Credit: David Kenyon.

Caricoas therefore must be resilient, and that’s what they are. Although having to live within situations of chronic violence, they do not let this stop them from living their lives. These low-income communities are often thriving with culture and NGOs do their best to support local residents, even with bullets flying overhead. Incredible daily resistance is evidenced through speculator events such as the ballet Meu Nome É Favela, put on by the Ballet Manguinhos. The show promoted different dance forms such as ballet and funk and interweaved the story of the favela, both its positives and negatives. Or the literary fair in Vila Kennedy which bought together authors from the West Zone of Rio to try and help residents further connect with literature.

Indeed, the resilience across these communities is inspiring and demonstrates that even with the ongoing conflict there is always hope for a better future, one that everyone will strive to achieve.

1Milícias are paramilitary groups who are comprised of either serving or retired policemen, firemen and army personnel.

2A native of Rio de Janeiro.

About the author

David Kenyon is a PhD student on the joint International Relations PhD from King’s College London and the University of São Paulo.

His research examines the everyday experiences of violence, fear and trauma among community residents and the police in low-income communities across Rio de Janeiro, one controlled by a drug trafficking organisation, and another by a militia.

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