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.