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Brazil - Citizenship, violence and authority in Rio’s favelas

Joanna Wheeler explores relationships between citizenship, violence and authority in Rio’s favelas in Brazil. Drug trafficking groups and para-state militias have become dominant actors in the city’s informal settlements. Militias provide apparently contradictory functions: they protect communities from violent state intrusion into the favelas in the form of predatory and corrupt police; but they also dominate communities politically and socially through the use violence and other forms of coercion. Ultimately, citizenship is “drained of meaning” by all sources of violence. The complex relationship between violence and authority materialises as “perverse politics” in which interventions made by the state to promote democracy and citizenship actually reinforce the authority of armed actors.

Patterns of authority and perceptions of power

Rio de Janeiro has an entrenched problem with urban violence, which raises questions about the relationship between violence and prospects for citizenship and democracy, and the complex relationship between power, authority and legitimacy.

With relatively high levels of violence in parts of Rio over a prolonged period of time, drug trafficking groups and para-state militias have become some of the dominant actors in the city’s informal settlements or favelas. According to the Instituto de Segurança Pública, over 39,000 people have been killed in the war between drug trafficking groups, the military police and para-statal death squads since 2007, with a further 35,000 people disappeared in the same period. As in many cities, Rio’s violence is highly concentrated in particular areas.

Residents’ perceptions of state power are often contradictory, mirroring the conflicting ways that the state intervenes in the favelas. Many residents and community leaders feel the extent of the government’s power within the favelas is very limited. The state is perceived as either incapable or unwilling to address the major problems facing communities. As a favela resident explained, “the government doesn’t have power here. Our community is not helped.”

The police are perceived as powerful in a negative way and are not seen as part of the state apparatus, operating with legitimacy. A favela resident described how “police have one face for the middle class and one face for the favela.”

Many residents view the police as interchangeable with the militias – and in many people’s experience this is the reality. Militias are made up of off-duty civil and military police officers, fire fighters, prison guards and members of the military. In some cases, they use police equipment, maintain constant communication with the police and act as a proxy for them.

In a sense, the militias represent the catastrophic failure of the government to provide accountable and legitimate public security. State power is multi-dimensional and extends into the favelas through different actors, including political parties, social programmes, the police and, in a hybrid way, the militias. This means that state power is very fragmented in the favelas. In some circumstances, the state is able to directly intervene and make changes, especially when the police invade violently. But in others the state may be completely powerless to act, as demonstrated by abduction and torture of journalists by the militias in 2008.

This article explores how patterns of authority and perceptions of power structure life in the favelasand why these are central to understanding how citizenship functions in a context of violence. How do local people perceive the power of the state and of the armed actors? And how do citizens living in the favelas with high levels of violence see their state?

Violence, power and authority in the favelas

Patterns of power and authority in the favelas are understood well by residents of a particular area but are largely invisible from the outside. The dominant pattern originates from the relationship between the favelas and the state, from the time the favelas were first established in the early 1900s, which is best described as malign neglect. It set the parameters for the emergence of drug trafficking factions, whose power was based on violent protection of their trade. The militias then evolved this scenario for their own purposes. The formal contestation of political authority through recognised democratic processes is a thin veneer that papers over the real struggle for power within the favelas – the rules of which are set in large part by armed actors.

Violent sources of power and authority coexist with other, often non-violent sources – including state-based, clientelistic and religious sources. Political and social mobilisation has been of little interest to the drug trafficking factions as their main motivation for controlling the community has been to guarantee an appropriate environment for their trade. 

But the militias have adopted multiple strategies specifically to control political and social mobilisation. They have taken control of residents’ associations, which are consequently armed, as well as other community-based organisations by forcing them to operate from the residents’ association building. The militias also seek to control interventions in the favelas by the state and by external NGOs.

All interventions must be via the militia (by way of the residents’ association), and should involve militia members where possible, or people of the militia’s choosing. The head of the militia in Quitungo and Guaporé municipalities of Rio asserted that: “There are no legitimate community leaders here. They may tell you that they are community leaders, but don’t be fooled. We are the only ones who are doing anything to improve the situation here.”

The militias also control the political space. They only allow selected candidates to campaign, who must make promises to deliver certain benefits, and do not allow rivals to hold campaign events or post campaign materials. Increasingly, militia leaders are looking for channels to extend their control into formal politics.

The system of rules enforced by the militia builds on those established by the drug-trafficking factions, which themselves emerged from the nature of the relationship between the state and the favelas. All rules are predicated on violence and fear. Sanctions for violating the rules include expulsions, beating, torture and death. Residents have been expelled for having family members in rival factions, or for interfering in faction business. 

The militias also use clientelism (such as relationships with political parties) and their ability to mediate access to the government and infrastructure as a means for perpetuating their control. They deliberately occupy existing governance structures within the favelas (eg residents’ association buildings) marked by their physical presence through patrols, cameras, barriers and wall murals. 

The militias’ power and authority is bolstered through the suppression of competing sources, such as drug trafficking factions or non-violent community-based organisations. Essential to this is a degree of legitimacy for what they do, which they have achieved through “enforcing peace”. Violence has a role in both setting and shifting sets of rules and patterns of authority that function within a given area. A favela community leader described how: “Here we have the law of the community and the system of the community – and these may change. But they are not the laws of Brazil.”

Competing forms of authority are not possible in the favelas, as they would be in a democratic arena. The militias attempt to build their legitimacy through taking over the role of the residents’ association when they perceive that by doing so they can enhance their position in the community. In one example, the militia would not allow an independent residents’ association to determine which areas of the community would receive a water-upgrading project. Deciding which areas received the benefits of the project was a means for establishing greater legitimacy. The militias do not allow others in the community to “bring in projects”. 

The drug factions had previously been able to exploit the lack of dialogue between the favelas and the state, reinforcing this divide to protect their trafficking operations. The militias who have taken over the role as mediator between the state and the community exploit the relationship in a different way, specifically responding to long-standing social exclusion. This is one reason why people do not report extortion to the state, but compromise and make deals with the militias in exchange for a degree of increased security and welfare. For example, residents in Quitungo and Guaporé made less then 10 calls to a government-sponsored hotline to report militia abuse.

This is what fundamentally undermines the participation of citizens from the favelas: the deeply ingrained rules about how the state and citizens relate to each other; and the long-standing gaps, silences and absences of the state that allow other actors to establish their violent authority. 

Local perceptions of legitimacy

Perceptions of legitimacy, like those of power, are highly contextual and often at odds with formal or legal legitimacy. Many residents in Quitungo welcomed the presence of the militia because they suppressed the open sale of drugs and ended the uncertainty that frequent wars between the factions brought, particularly from the late 1990s until the militia took control in 2006–07. This view is echoed by residents in many other favelas controlled by militias. When the leader of the Guaporé militia was killed invading another favela on 6 February 2007, shops and commerce within the favela were closed for the day and buildings were hung with black cloth. 

In many cases, the militia has greater legitimacy in the eyes of many residents than the police, who have repeatedly fuelled the wars and the drug trade, attacked communities, killed people, and generally abused their power with few repercussions. The legitimacy of some militias is increasing within favelas due to the way they use violence strategically to repress the drug trade.

But other uses of violence can detract from the militias’ legitimacy. Their attempted monopoly over existing patronage systems, government benefits and community-based organisations is a tactic employed to bolster both their legitimacy and their control, but can have the opposite effect.

Militia leaders employ a discourse of providing social benefits and of non-violence as a means of building legitimacy more broadly. The leader of the militia in Quitungo declared that: “We are the legitimate community leaders here – we are putting the residents’ association to rights, we are organising things because before there was a connection between the association and the traffickers.”

Despite these claims, the militias have more legitimacy in relation to public security and order and less in political or social terms. Nevertheless, their legitimacy in general grows as they deliver real benefits to communities, such as suppressing open drug trade and violence, especially as residents see improvements in relation to other favelas where warring factions are still in control. And this leads to further entrenchment of their social legitimacy in the favelas

In part, the militias’ legitimacy is bolstered by their shadow connections to the state, via both the police and particular politicians. The number of politicians openly involved with the militias is growing. In a context where the state has very little local legitimacy, and yet residents believe the state should be responsible for guaranteeing rights, the connections of the militia to the state are not only plausible but also desirable in the eyes of residents. 

The state does not officially or formally acknowledge the authority of the militias or the traffickers, but nor does it intervene – except for the Unidade de Policía Pacificadora (Police Pacification Units) used to “clean up” favelas through highly militarised invasions. The state negotiates with the militias and traffickers on a regular basis and so armed actors mediate the relationship between citizens in the favela and the state. This contributes to the legitimacy of armed actors while at the same time further eroding the basis for more recognised legitimate political authority.

It is this dynamic that contributes to a perverse politics, where interventions made by the state to promote democracy and citizenship actually reinforce the position of the armed actors. Violent authority is both the most pervasive and the most damaging to citizenship. From the perspective of community residents, there are two forms of legitimate authority. The first is legal, externally valid, formal, and derived from the state. The second is socially-derived and contextual, and constituted within the boundaries of the community. 

What emerges in the context of the favelas is a mix of different sources of power and authority, making it very difficult to distinguish legitimate authority from relationships of coercion and domination. If the militia and the trafficking factions had no social legitimacy whatsoever, then the patterns of authority that they perpetuate would unravel completely. The fact that they continue to have effect is evidence of how patterns of authority can be both coercive and have a certain degree of legitimacy. 


Dilemmas of legitimate political authority in the violent context of the favelas bear important implications for citizenship. The fractured nature of state power and its complicity in violence produces a paucity of political legitimacy within the favelas. Patterns of authority, predicated on violence, order people’s daily lives in a way that further restricts the ability of the state to act. Meanwhile, socially constructed legitimacy favours the actors who are perceived to deliver concrete benefits.

The lack of legitimate formal political authority compromises citizenship because it is not clear which institutions are accountable for delivering rights. As a result, citizens turn to the capable (the armed actors), rather than the responsible (the state). This leads to the rise of armed actors as mediators between citizens and state.

The role of the armed actors is central to how daily life is ordered within the favela, with patterns of power, authority and social legitimacy becoming intertwined. These shape how citizens can engage with the state as well as how the state can respond. The landscape of uneven state power, pervasive patterns of authority based on violence that order every day life, and often conflicting forms of social legitimacy for armed actors, limits the scope for acts of citizenship that can shift power relations and adds another significant dimension to the fragmentation of citizenship in general.

The meaning of citizenship, from the perspective of people living in the favelas, becomes emptied out by violence. In particular, the fear and sense of powerlessness that many people experience as a result of violence contributes to a strong belief that full citizenship has neither relevance nor value. Combined with a lack of rights in other areas such as inadequate access to health care, education, or employment opportunities, violence in many ways negates a sense of citizenship at the level of the favelas in spite of Brazil’s strong national discourse on democratic citizenship. This directly informs how people enact their citizenship.

The potential for social action within the favelas becomes a double-edged sword, with many examples of how it has contributed to the dynamics of violence and has fed into perverse politics. However, acts of citizenship that transcend the boundaries of parallel communities and articulate new kinds of relationships do still occur.

The article is based on participatory action research conducted from 2006–09 in two areas with very high levels of violence: Quitungo and Guaporé in the North Zone, controlled by a militia; and Morro dos Prazeres and Fogueteiro in the Centre, controlled by a drug trafficking faction at the time of the research. The article also draws on the 2008 report on militias by the legislative assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro.