Drugs & Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, & Public Security

Drugs & Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, & Public Security

Drugs & Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, & Public Security

Drugs & Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, & Public Security


Taking an ethnographic approach to understanding urban violence, Enrique Desmond Arias examines the ongoing problems of crime and police corruption that have led to widespread misery and human rights violations in many of Latin America's new democracies. Employing participant observation and interview research in three favelas (shantytowns) in Rio de Janeiro over a nine-year period, Arias closely considers the social interactions and criminal networks that are at the heart of the challenges to democratic governance in urban Brazil.

Much of the violence is the result of highly organized, politically connected drug dealers feeding off of the global cocaine market. Rising crime prompts repressive police tactics, and corruption runs deep in state structures. The rich move to walled communities, and the poor are caught between the criminals and often corrupt officials. Arias argues that public policy change is not enough to stop the vicious cycle of crime and corruption. The challenge, he suggests, is to build new social networks committed to controlling violence locally. Arias also offers comparative insights that apply this analysis to other cities in Brazil and throughout Latin America.


Around 10:00 P.M. one rainy Friday night, a friend and I drove out of a favela (shantytown) and headed up an access ramp onto one of the major highways that runs from Rio de Janeiro’s gritty working-class Zona Norte (North Zone) to the glittering seaside Zona Sul (South Zone). As we rounded the curve on the slick incline, our tires lost traction and the car spun out of control as other vehicles bore down behind us.

A few minutes earlier, we had left a notoriously crime-ridden favela where my friend, a European ex-patriot, runs a nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on keeping at-risk adolescents out of criminal activity. He had received some substantial funding over the past year and was in the process of completing an expansion of the NGO’s facilities that would allow for a dramatic increase in his group’s services. As we drove to the community that evening, he had told me that he had asked me to come out there with him to serve as his guinea pig. The favela had just come through a rash of gunfights between police and the local drug gang, and my friend wanted to show his new construction to donors and other visitors who would arrive in Brazil in a few weeks. My place in all this was to see how the drug dealers who had a heavy presence on the favela’s main street would react to my friend showing up with an unknown outsider on a Friday evening, a peak drugdealing time.

We arrived in the favela around 8:00 P.M. As things go in Rio’s favelas, we had to turn down our headlights so as not to provoke a hail of bullets from the traffickers who had positioned themselves at the entrance of the community. We drove down the street past the usual groups of young people and adults out enjoying their Friday night in this very busy favela. Along the way we passed the occasional boca de fumo (mouth of smoke, drug sales point), where a group of adolescents and young men would sit with automatic rifles and other weapons selling cocaine and marijuana.

We parked our car and walked to the NGO’s facilities. As we strolled down the main street, we passed several bars playing blisteringly loud music where groups of men sat, drank beer, and somehow managed to carry on conversations. With . . .

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