Violence(s) in the Brazilian urban periphery

The Brazilian cities of Osasco and Barueri, in greater São Paulo, have been witnessing a spate of execution-style killings that left at least eighteen people dead and six wounded on the night of August 13. The killings were committed by masked men using cars and motorbikes, observed by residents in different locations.

In some contrast to the situation in Bahia, the hypothesis that these killings were coordinated vengeance attacks by police is being taken seriously by the police investigating these events. A military policeman was murdered in Osasco after being assaulted in a gas station on August 7, and a civil guardsman in Barueri was killed the day before the attacks took place. As the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, not noted for its radicalism, freely conceded in its report, the participation of serving police officers in extra-judicial mass killings would hardly be a novelty in São Paulo. There have been five such events in the paulista capital since 2013, with police participation suspected in all of them.

São Paulo’s governor, Geraldo Alckmin, who hopes to be the candidate of the PSDB again in the next national presidential elections, rather characteristically responded by calling the assumption of police involvement into question. Amnesty International took the opposite tack. The calibre of the weapons used corresponded to weapons used by the military or metropolitan civil guards. Some of the victims had criminal records, and in some cases witnesses insist that the attackers asked about criminal antecedents before killing their victims, but the majority of those killed, twelve, did not. The demonstrable innocence of any wrongdoing of most of the victims has in fact been emphasised by all the mainstream media.

It is, of course, irrelevant to the maintenance of the rule of law whether  the victims of extra-judicial killings are honest “workers” or people involved in thefts, murders or drug trafficking. Even residents of the victimised communities themselves sometimes say that the fact that an individual was killed shows that he or she “must have been involved in that stuff” whether or not they had a criminal record. Yet this is a misconception. In my own fieldwork I have encountered one case of mistaken identity of the intended target, but found that vengeance killings by police, which sometimes occur after officers have been denounced for misconduct by someone using the anonymous phone line available for this purpose, often involve a selection of victims that is arbitrary, with the qualification that they are most likely to be young black men.

However, as anthropologist Gabriel de Santis Feltran has shown in his ethnographic studies, the violent administration of “justice” in the São Paulo urban periphery is not the exclusive preserve of state law enforcement agents because of the important role played by the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) crime organisation in these matters. Despite periodic bouts of violent confrontation between the police and the PCC, apparently provoked by the breakdown of backstage agreements that are well documented but always denied by the state government, Feltran’s studies reveal that there is also a significant amount of day-to-day accommodation and even tacit collaboration between these two kinds of ordering powers.

But although the PCC exercises greater hegemony in the urban periphery of São Paulo than any crime organisation in Rio de Janeiro or Salvador, the next two biggest Brazilian metropoles, other criminal gangs are operating at neighbourhood level, and some crime is distinctly “unorganised” (and often unauthorised). The world of the police is no more monolithic than the world of crime. So death squads and mafias within the different police corporations are also “unauthorised”, even where they enjoy a special degree of impunity due to the reluctance of many colleagues not involved in these activities themselves to act against them.

In this latest case, the hypothesis of revenge killings by law enforcement officers, with the finger of suspicion pointed most strongly at the military police, is plausible because it is a known problem, and not simply in São Paulo as I have suggested in some of my posts about Salvador. So far at least, it looks as if the hypothesis will be investigated seriously. Yet it is important to strive for a deeper understanding of the different forces that threaten the security of the residents of the urban periphery, overwhelmingly honest working people, and to look at the relations between them, because they are evolving in ever more disturbing ways.

Another report in today’s Folha de São Paulo records a police operation in Rio de Janeiro against milícias that have taken control of low-cost condominiums in the western zone that have been constructed under the Minha Casa, Minha Vida program, one of whose aims is to offer working people affordable alternatives to favela living. These milícias are mafia gangs that practice extortion against residents and sell essential products such as gas bottles illegally. They expel those whose who fail to cooperate from their homes. Rio’s milícias originally developed to take control of favelas previously controlled by drug trafficking gangs, often with the covert support of local politicians and the active participation of past or serving members of the police forces. They drove out the traffickers and established their own armed dominion, rapidly changing from being protectors to exploiters but rigorously defending their perimeter against any efforts by traffickers to make a comeback.

But it now seems that things may be changing. There are now favelas where milícias and traffickers are collaborating. The milícias provide protection and the traffickers a share of the profits in return. This is quite logical. The traffickers have the supply networks and the milícia bosses can adopt a lower profile, avoiding persecution by hiding in the shadows while poor community members take the heat of police persecution.

The police deployed to “pacify” the favela communities in Rio by establishing a permanent presence within them have faced an escalating campaign of violence on the part of traffickers aiming to retake lost territory, and defend their business. This criminal strategy has benefited from the growing disillusion of many residents with the way they are being policed and the way that “pacification” has increasingly come to be seen as having a hidden agenda that is to do with neoliberal-style urban redevelopment and relocation of poorer families from zones that the capitalist market and city authorities seek to revalorise.

But there is also evidence that some police units, just like the milícias, are seeking new accommodations with traffickers. Corrupt relations between police and criminals would hardly be a novelty in Rio, and cases of such relationships were in fact exposed early in the history of the pacification program. But as in São Paulo, police struggle day-to-day on the streets with the contradictions of public security policies that they did not devise and may also see as embodying hidden, class-biased, agendas. They probably want to make their working lives easier and less dangerous through accommodations that have the added advantage of putting a bit more money in their pockets. The policing of Rio’s favelas continues to provoke protest and criticism for the high death toll that it produces and its regular violation of human rights. This remains a crucial problem. Yet as in São Paulo, more complex kinds of relationships seem to be evolving between the different actors involved in these scenarios of violence.

From the point of view of residents being dominated by any of these actors tends to be far from ideal  and generates continuous collateral damage even when they are not directly victimised by traffickers, police or milícias. People who live in the urban periphery are citizens and what they really need are public policies designed to improve their security rather than to pander to middle class fears and prejudices and to enrich the kinds of citizens and foreign interests that are making quite enough money already without having to do it at the expense of the urban poor.

Rio’s favela pacification program was originally modelled on the approach to public security adopted by the Colombian city of Medellín. I argue in my book The New War Against the Poor that its unintended consequences are increasingly coming to resemble what has happened in Medellín since the Pablo Escobar era as well. Raúl Zibechi has recently produced a graphic account of the current situation in Medellín’s slums that can be read here in English on the Americas Program website. As residents that Zibechi spoke to pointed out, in Medellín, constructing a city “that can be sold to foreigners and tourists”  often involves multiple displacements within the city of people who came there in the first place because they were displaced by paramilitary violence in the countryside. Now they have to suffer the depredations of the combos, the 350 or so gangs with paramilitary and mafia characteristics that took over drug selling after the “organised crime” of Escobar’s cartel was dismantled, and now offer “protection” as part of a system of micro-territorial control that is similar to that of the Rio milícias.

Yet in both Rio and Medellín it was the slum dwellers themselves who built the communities  that others now seek to “redevelop”, including the municipal governments and investors who want to displace them from the land that they turned into something actually worth exploiting and developing. This is another, and profound, form of violence, hidden behind the façade of projects such as cable cars and white elephant public buildings that no community organisation asked for.