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The Favelas: Gangs, Violence & Society

Manan Sanghvi

“Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it” Henry Thomas Buckle

Criminals, Violence and Gangs are the by-products of an ineffective social system and Brazil is no stranger to it. Apartheid, social exclusion, authoritative governance and disregard for the poor have all been imperative in the emergence of the street gangs in the cities of Brazil. The violence of the gangs reflects their ambitions to feel belonged and to be respected as equals in a biased society. Most importantly it reflects their basic human instinct to improve their life styles, which has been ignored by Brasilia for over a century now. It comes as no surprise that the violent street gangs have emerged in the pockets of Brazilian poverty, the Favelas. Today, many of the favelas in Brazil have become small illegitimate territories, where the government can exercise little or no authority. Street Gangs, with advanced weaponry control administrate the favelas as a safe haven to carry on their illegitimate drug and arm trades.

Origins of the Favelas

The first favela was started in Brazil in 1897 by the troops returning from the War of Canudos (1893-1897). 20,000 troops who had fought and won the deadliest civil war in Brazilian history against Antonio Conselherio in Bahia were brought and stranded in Rio de Janeiro without accommodation. Tired of failed government promises of providing them a home, the soldiers took over a nearby hill called Gamboa to build themselves shanties to live in. The soldiers called the place Morro da favela, after the hill where they had camped just before launching their offensive against Conselheiro’s forces. Shorty after its name was changed to Providencia. Favela originally refers to a shrub found in abundance on Morro da favela.

After the abolition of slavery in 1888, a wave of recently freed black slaves primarily from north-east Brazil flocked to urban centers of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Some of the older favelas were originally started as quilombos (independent settlements of fugitive African slaves) among the hilly terrain of the area surrounding Rio.

The 20th century has seen a phenomenal influx of rural immigrants who started populating the cities mostly in the favelas due to poverty and social non-acceptance. At the beginning of the century, less than one in five Brazilians lived in the cities. Today nearly 4 in five Brazilians inhabit urban regions with the south west regions of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro drawing the most sizable immigration. The explosive era of favela growth dates from the 1940s, when Getúlio Vargas’s industrialisation drive pulled hundreds of thousands of migrants into the Federal District. Most of the current favelas began in the 1970s, as a construction boom in the richer neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro initiated a rural exodus of workers from poorer states in Brazil. Since favelas have been created under different terms but with similar end results, the term favela has become generally interchangeable with any impoverished areas.

In the 1950’s favelas began forming Resident Associations known as Associacoes de Moradores (AM’s). AM leaders resolved conflicts through systems of legal reasoning internal to favelas and presided over dramatic mutirao (cooperative building) projects that provided basic infrastructure to their region.

Drugs like Cocaine were observed in Favela society as back as 1910. But the 1970’s saw an explosion in drug use with large scale smuggling from neighbour Columbia. The system of the Resident Associations began to crumble as drug trafficking grew and drug traders, usually the poor uneducated people from the favelas started getting involved in drug distribution. Drug Traffickers grew in power during the 1980’s and 1990’s when the nation’s economy was experiencing severe inflation. During that phase, non-profits pulled out and the AM’s developed alliances with the drug traffickers. Even the role of the Catholic and Pentecostal churches, which were traditionally powerful in the favela society diminished in power.

The Gangs of the Favelas

The Favelas of Brazil were not traditionally violent and subversive. The origins of their violence and the creation of gangs in Rio de Janeiro are interestingly found in the political scenario of Brazil. Under the successive military regimes between 1969 and 1985, the public rights were severely curtailed. In 1979, Left Wing political radicals were held together with criminals at the Candido Mendes prison on Ilha Grande, in the sea west of Rio. Also known as Devil’s Island, guerillas and political radicals were held in this prison during the military dictatorship. On the Devil’s Island, an alliance was formed between the guerillas and the criminals and the Comando Vermelho or the Red Command was formed. The Red Command is the oldest and most powerful of Rio’s narco-mafia.

The Red Command was based on Marxist principles with the motto “Peace, Justice and Freedom” which the gang retains to this date. But after the restoration of Brazil’s democracy, Marxism no longer remained their agenda. Today the organisation has purely criminal interests mainly drug supply and distribution and arm’s trade.

Drug gangs have hierarchical systems just like corporate companies. Favela chiefs are gerentes gerais or general managers, their deputies are sub-gerentes, the top gang bosses are donos or owners. The general manager usually has a small army under his command. The average age of the people enlisted is usually 15 to 18. The gangs recruit youngsters luring them with power, respect and money. Growing up poor in the favelas, kids find social acceptance and a chance to improve their life styles under the helm of the drug gangs.

Rio is one of the very few cities of the world where you have whole areas controlled by armed forces that are not of the state. Any one gang in the smallest of favelas has weapons that could rival a small army battalion. The street gangs are entropic, an anarchic group of young men and women who become criminals to earn respect and a better lifestyle.

The organisations have historically provided the favela residents with minimal social services such as financial assistance for funerals, water services and vans to take students and residents from stores and hospitals. (Gay 2005, Arias 2004).  They provide administrative services which are restricted to control other criminal activities against favelados, usually by brutal violence and keeping order. They would also provide financial support to Non-Profit organisations to provide medical care in the favelas. They would support organisations providing education, food and shelter to the street kids. The gangs would finance and organise Baile Funk or parties attended by youths from outside the favelas, from o asfalto or “the Asphalt” which refer to the legally constituted parts of the city. They would support and endorse the Catholic and Pentecostal churches doing social work in the favelas. They even support local Football clubs and provide financing for them to play.

In comparison, the government is looked at with vehemence; with the administration paying little or no attention to the needs of the favelados and excluding them from social policies. The police, with their aggressive and violent stance have added to the anti establishment feeling generally felt by all the favelados.

These reasons have allowed the gangs to be endorsed and even loved and respected in the favelas. The gangs, in return for lei do silêncio or the law of silence protect them against the “oppressive government”.

 Manan Sanghvi is a graduate of the pioneer batch of the GCPP programme at the Takshashila Institution.


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