The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil

The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil

by Erika Mary Robb Larkins

Hardcover(First Edition)

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In Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, traffickers assert power through conspicuous displays of wealth and force, brandishing high-powered guns, gold jewelry, and piles of cash and narcotics. Police, for their part, conduct raids reminiscent of action films or video games, wearing masks and riding in enormous armored cars called “big skulls.” Images of these spectacles circulate constantly in local, national, and global media, masking everyday forms of violence, prejudice, and inequality. The Spectacular Favela offers a rich ethnographic examination of the political economy of spectacular violence in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. Based on more than two years of residence in the community, the book explores how entangled forms of violence shape everyday life and how that violence is, in turn, connected to the market economy.

Erika Robb Larkins shows how favela violence is produced as a marketable global brand. While this violence is projected in disembodied form through media, the favela is also sold as an embodied experience through the popular practice of favela tourism. The commodification of the favela becomes a form of violence itself; favela violence is transformed into a commercially viable byproduct of a profit-driven war on drugs, which serves to keep the poor marginalized. This book tells the story of how traffickers, police, cameras, tourists, and even anthropologists come together to create what the author calls the “spectacular favela.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282766
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #32
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Erika Robb Larkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma.


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The Spectacular Favela

Violence in Modern Brazil

By Erika Robb Larkins


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95869-2


The Narco-Traffic

Beto is wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the words "Thug Life" (in English) printed on it. A small caliber handgun is tucked into his shorts. His bodyguards stand a few feet away sharing a large joint and admiring the panoramic view of the city before them. The lights are coming on and twinkling. "Turn on your tape recorder," he says. "I am happy to get a chance to talk, to communicate with the outside world."

At twenty-eight, Beto was considered a veteran. Responsible for Rocinha's security, he oversaw the punishment of those who violated the rules for proper conduct as determined by his boss, the dono. This meant that he had been intimately involved with torture and murder, topics we never directly discussed. Once he told me, with a pained look, that he had done horrible things, worse than what I could imagine. Things he wasn't proud of. I didn't ask for details. In his capacity as a security agent, he was also a bodyguard for traffickers above him in the ranks, trained the soldiers under him, and worked to establish gang strategy vis-à-vis the police. Sometimes he handled police payoffs, delivering large sums of money to dirty cops. His girlfriend, Katia, eyes wide with excitement, recounted how she had once rolled naked on a bed covered with R$30,000 (about US$15,000) before it made its way to police coffers.

Tall and dark-skinned, Beto at first didn't look much different from other favela residents his age. However, his perpetual smile showed off the braces that adorned his teeth. Close examination showed other signs of wealth out of reach for most ordinary people in the community. The diamond studs he wore in both ears and his designer clothes were real, procured from boutiques in the city. Unlike most residents, Beto would never buy knock-offs from the open-air market that sprawled across the entrance to the favela.

Before entering the traffic, he had spent six years in the Special Forces wing of the military, learning from the government how to kill. One year of military service is officially obligatory for men in Brazil, but most people do not serve. Those who do are often from the lower classes and see the military as a career option. Beto took this path. He stayed on past the first year, advancing through the ranks until he left to join the traffic.

Beto's military background points to entanglements between the state and its supposed enemies, the "marginal" elements of society. In a striking example of what Jane Schneider and Peter Schneider call the intreeccio, or intertwining of the Mafia and the state, Beto symbolizes "that vast gray area where it is impossible to determine where one leaves off and the other begins" (Schneider and Schneider 2003: 34). Beto is at once soldier, cop, and criminal. Violent laborers, like Beto, traverse the dividing lines between legitimate and illegitimate modes of production, where they perform more or less the same sort of "work," as Beto describes it, for different bosses. Reminiscing about his military service, he explained, "I learned a lot of stuff: to shoot, to survive, to work on guns. I came out of the army like Rambo. I knew a ton. And what was I going to do with this? Who could I teach it to? I had all this knowledge inside of me and I wanted to see if all the stuff I learned about war would actually work. I already knew what my methods would be. It just took someone to say, 'Hey dude, come work with me and do these things!'"

And that's what happened. Beto was not from Rocinha but from a neighboring favela controlled by the same gang. He knew someone who knew someone who said, "Hey, you want a job?" There was no deep allegiance to faction or favela here—those would come later—but rather a pragmatic desire for a different life, what he called a better parada (venture, adventure).

In our conversations, Beto evoked a global repertoire of images of violent, militarized masculinity. He routinely framed his own struggle against the police as similar to that of other soldiers engaged in what he described as "just" or "legal" wars worldwide. He talked constantly about the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which he followed closely on television and in the newspaper. He fantasized about hiring himself out as a mercenary for these war efforts, where he could don desert fatigues, which he described as "beautiful," and where he could employ the most advanced technologies for killing.

Beto's awareness of the world outside the favela illustrates how traffickers are not somehow isolated from the larger society but deeply embedded in wider social spheres, consumer groups, and media cultures. In fact, global geopolitics and things like new electronics, fashion brands, or international travel were all far more interesting conversation topics to Beto than my questions about local favela and trafficker politics. He was not unique in this regard. The hunger to talk about and experience something new— to break what was described as the "monotony" of favela life—was typical of both traffickers and residents alike.

For a time, the neighborhood boca de fumo was located in the alley underneath the window of my bedroom, providing me with (often unwanted) access to the sights and sounds of trafficker business twentyfour hours a day. To my surprise, nearly every morning one particular trafficker would go to the newsstand and buy a paper. He would spend the next several hours reading articles aloud to his colleagues, pausing every so often to sell drugs to one patron or another. International news, in particular, was of interest. During the U.S. presidential election season in 2008, John McCain and the practice of waterboarding was the center of debate.

For someone like Beto, who described himself as a youth "in love with war" and "in love with hand-to-hand combat and killing in cold blood," trafficking was not the only game in town. He admitted that when he left the Special Forces he could have taken the police exam, or perhaps worked in private security. These would have been appropriate venues for him to practice the skills he had acquired in the military. He laughed aloud at the irony that he could have ended up fighting for the other side, hunting a parallel version of himself. But his experiences with the government—shaped by his marginalized class and racial status—led him to believe that the drug economy actually represented a more stable and honorable employment opportunity than the police force.

Beyond his unabashed proclamation that he wanted to see what it felt like to actually hurt a person and to confront a real enemy, Beto framed his decision to become a trafficker in terms of necessity: "I knew I had to make this choice because I knew what it was like to feel hunger. Other people I know, they are still hungry because they didn't have the courage to make the choice that I did. The state didn't give me any other options." While it is somewhat difficult to believe the dire picture Beto paints here—after all, he was employed by the government and left to join the traffic—his use of the idiom of state neglect to explain his choice is significant. For Beto, the state itself is responsible for the ever growing number of armed youth in Rio.

This is a line of reasoning one hears frequently in the favela, as residents cite the lack of state-sponsored education and employment programs as a motivating force, if not the motivating force, behind the ongoing migration of young men into the traffic or into a life of crime beyond the narco-regime. Trafficking, in this view, becomes a natural response to the actions of the state. The discourse of government abandonment helps to maintain trafficker power in the favela by framing trafficking as a form of politicized resistance to state oppression and placing traffickers on the front line in a battle against state tyranny.

After deserting the army, Beto advanced quickly through the ranks of Rocinha's traffic. "I never started at the bottom," he says with obvious satisfaction. "I went straight ao lado do cara" (to the "guy's" side, meaning he immediately began working directly for the boss). He attributes this to the value of his skill set; his knowledge of police and army strategy meant that he could train those already involved in the traffic. After all, he asked me, was there really such a big difference between the state and narco armies? Shortly thereafter, his work in Rocinha earned him a mention in an article that appeared in Rio's main daily newspaper, O Globo, as well as in the New York Times. It was just a few months after he entered the traffic. "My mom kept the clipping if you want to see it," he told me proudly. "The publication made up my mind. They had my name. Now I was on the other side [the traffic], the wrong side maybe, but there wasn't any getting out."

Beto was arrested in late 2009. According to news reports, he was guilty of recruiting members of the armed forces on behalf of the traffic. Media coverage was especially sensationalist, not because his actions were particularly shocking, but because his arrest was a painful reminder of the intimate relationship between the state and the traffic. His girlfriend, Katia, told me in a tearful phone conversation that he would get a lengthy sentence and that he was locked up in Bangu I, Rio de Janeiro's infamous high-security prison. He had a cell phone, though, and computer access, so the two were still able to instant message through their Facebook accounts. Even though they had broken up a few months before, prison made Beto nostalgic for the happy times they had shared. He called often.

When I returned to the newly "pacified" favela in 2012, Beto was, inexplicably, free. By coincidence we were dining in the same restaurant, I with my husband and toddler and he with a large group, many of whom I recognized as traffickers, or former traffickers. In the tenuous, high-security climate of the recent pacification, several BOPE officers were standing outside the restaurant. Beto pretended not to recognize me. He commented loudly on how cute the little blond baby was, but he would not meet my eyes. The shifting configuration of the conflict and the advent of "peace" made conversation impossible.

In this chapter I examine the quotidian mechanisms of trafficker governance, in which discourses of legitimacy are forged through interwoven spectacles of violence and wealth. Rocinha's traffickers make the rules; they determine the law in the favela. When they are crossed, they respond with spectacular violence, overt displays of force enacted for the consumption of the favela audience. But trafficker power is predicated on more than the display of high-powered weapons or the direct physical violence they perpetuate. Traffickers also author and participate in a rich civic life, enhancing their legitimacy in the local milieu by attaining (and publicly flaunting) the trappings of Brazilian (and global) consumer culture. Yet, like any other governing force, traffickers experience periodic lapses in control. Trafficker "states of exception" are resolved through the same governing mechanisms—spectacle, violence, and commodification—and reveal how power is reasserted through both coercive and symbolic channels.

In exploring the manufacture of forms of trafficker "capital"—meant here in the broadest sense—I highlight the fact that while the trafficker state often appears much like an inversion of larger Rio society, it is in fact deeply intertwined with mainstream Brazilian and global cultures. Even as traffickers appear to subvert the order of things by claiming to be the kings of the morro, crowned with the glittering gold of their many necklaces, watches, and gilded pistols, their power is in fact developed in much the same ways and through the same mechanisms as those of the "legitimate" state and in dialogue with the conventions and norms of wider society. The purposeful dialogue with mainstream governance and culture signals that despite the favela's economic and social marginalization, it is integrated with the dominant logics of neoliberalism and consumption at the core of larger state and civic governance.

As Beto suggested, ongoing poverty and discrimination in Rocinha provided fertile ground for the development of the trafficker governance. Persistent social segregation and lack of opportunity produce a steady stream of alienated youth like Beto willing to take up arms in search of respect and economic solvency. Though favelas have been the consistent target of police throughout their history, important changes after the fall of the military dictatorship exacerbated the situation. Gangs, forged from collaboration between political radicals and criminals, changed the landscape of organized crime in the city. Under the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985, leftist radicals and common criminals, many of whom came from favelas, were imprisoned together in a penitentiary called Candido Mendes, located on an island on the Costa Verde, a few hours from Rio. These two very different "threats to the nation" formed an alliance with the political prisoners organizing the criminals into politicized gangs (Penglase 2008).

This alliance, which Ben Penglase aptly dubs "the bastard child of the dictatorship" (2008), called itself the Comando Vermelho (CV), in reference to the communist ideologies of the political prisoners. It became a governing force within the prison. Prisoners, upon release or escape from the island, brought their newfound organizational skills to the street, where they orchestrated organized bank robberies, stickups, car thefts, and so forth (Lima 1991). Already on the margins of the city, favelas became their strongholds. Community oriented and political, the early faction leaders of the CV built basic infrastructure in many favelas and initially presented the group as a kind of welfare state for poor residents (Penglase 2008).

In the 1980s, with an expanding market for cocaine in the North, the CV turned to drug trafficking. Rio became a transshipment and packaging location for drugs coming from neighboring Colombia and Bolivia. Cocaine provided a more lucrative and stable source of income to the factions than did random criminal acts (Leeds 1996; Gay 2005: 55-56; Gay 2009; Perlman 2010). According to local drug consumers interviewed by Alba Zaluar and Alexandre Ribeiro, the trade took off mid-decade, with 1984 jokingly referred to as the "year it snowed in Rio de Janeiro" (1995: 95). Furthermore, the movement of narcotics fostered a semantic shift: gangs were no longer composed only of margináis (marginal characters), bandidos (bandits), or crimináis (criminals) but now also of traficantes (traffickers).

The rise of the narcotics market, which for the first time brought significant capital to the gangs, led to the subsequent introduction of the powerful weapons of war needed to protect drug-selling sites from rebellious up-and-comers as well as rival gangs (Barcellos 2003). With more and more money to be gained from drug sales, the CV splintered into several different factions. Turf wars began to pose a real threat to everyday safety. During my residence in Rocinha (2008-10), however, the reigning faction of traffickers was so entrenched that not a single resident ever expressed concern to me that another faction might take over the favela territory. Indeed, the Rocinha that I describe here is in my mind emblematic of the pinnacle of established trafficker power.

Drug Bureaucracies

Favelas, under the control of a local drug boss, became ideal sites for the refinement of cocaine. After processing, drugs are weighed, measured, and packaged for sale, for both the internal and external markets (Leeds 1996; Dowdney 2003: 258). The boca de fumo, where drug dealers gather to ply their trade, is the economic center of the drug trade and the public face of the traffic in favelas like Rocinha. It usually looks like a few guys (maybe one woman) sitting around on plastic chairs or on top of wooden produce boxes. Drugs are kept in faded leather fanny packs or in backpacks set on the ground beside their chairs. Boca dealers typically carry guns, but usually no weapons are visible since the focus is more on commerce than force. The boca features small quantities of drugs at prices favela residents can afford, starting at around R$5 (US$2.50). Packets of cocaine and marijuana of various quantities are laid out on a table for all to see, as are the sizable quantities of cash that the dealers handle. They frequently pull out rolls of money and grandiosely count them on the table, in an obvious show of wealth.


Excerpted from The Spectacular Favela by Erika Robb Larkins. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. The Narco-Traffic
2. The Penal State
3. Favela, Inc.
4. The Tourists
5. “Peace”


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