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Tag Archives | Latin america

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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On Cash Transfers

Abhimanyu Sanghi

Introducing a sunset clause in all central government subsidies, and holding a large-scale two-year pilot program on direct cash transfers.

In the Financial Year 2012, the total central government subsidies accounted for INR 190,015 crore of government expenditure (approximately 2 percent of GDP). This is expenditure that is used for sustaining the country, and does not contribute to the development of the country. In addition, the amount borrowed for subsidies accrues interest, which is an additional amount that is taken away from the development of the country. Subsidies are not targeted, and therefore the middle class is a large unintended beneficiary of the subsidies. India’s current fiscal deficit at 5.9 percent does not allow us the leeway to continue with the high amount of non-targeted subsidies. Food and fuel subsidies account for 49 percent of total subsidies.

Therefore, my first proposal on subsidies is to introduce a sunset clause – a ten-year progressive decrease in subsidies to zero, that is, a reduction in subsidies of ten percentage points every year for the next ten years. This proposal is bound to face opposition. To offset this opposition and have a sustainable targeted safety net program in India, my second proposal is to hold a two-year large-scale pilot of direct cash transfers to the poor in multiple states.

Conditional cash transfers have been successful in poverty alleviation in countries in Latin America and Africa. What makes it challenging in India is the high population density and difficulty in tracking conditionality. On unconditional cash transfers, the sample data points are fewer in number and the available data is less convincing. However, both programs provide a more sustainable means of social welfare than untargeted subsidies.

Abhimanyu Sanghi is a Delhi-based investor and a classical liberal.

(The above piece was written by Abhimanyu in April 2012, as a student of The Takshashila Institution.)

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Mexico: Return to the “perfect dictatorship”?

Nivedita Kashyap

Between the French elections in April and the US elections in November, the Mexicans voted for their new president on the first of July. Mexico has a presidential system of government and four parties were in the fray, each with a candidate for the post – the PAN, the PRI, the PRD, and the New Alliance. The official election results showed Enrique Peña Nieto from the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional in Spanish) in the lead with 38.2 percent of votes followed by Andres Manuel López Obrador from the PRD with 31.6 percent of votes and Josefina Vázquez Mota from the incumbent PAN with 25.4 percent of votes.

López Obrador, however, has refused to accept the results accusing Peña Nieto’s campaign of electoral fraud and of paying the major media outlets for a favorable coverage. López Obrador’s allegations of widespread vote buying were accompanied by reports of thousands of people rushing to grocery stores to redeem gift cards that they said were given to them by Peña Nieto’s PRI ahead of the elections. Since the results have been announced, thousands of protestors have taken to the streets to protest what they call the “media legitimisation of the electoral fraud”.  These have been led by Mexico’s very own protest movement marshaled via social media, called the “#YoSoy132” (I am 132). The hash tag emphasizes the movement’s connection to Twitter, where it was a trending worldwide topic for days.

Despite the lead in the election results, Peña Nieto cannot declare himself as the president-elect because according to Mexico’s electoral laws, this can only happen when all allegations against the candidate have been first resolved by the Electoral Tribunal of Mexico. Indeed, Barack Obama has been criticised for congratulating Peña Nieto prematurely.

If Peña Nieto is sworn in as the president of Mexico in December this year, he will bring his party, the PRI, to power after 12 years in the opposition. The PRI ruled Mexico for 71 years between 1929 and 2000 and has often resorted to repression of dissent, vote-rigging and corruption to get its way. The outgoing PRI president handpicked his successor in consultation with the party bosses. This had prompted the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to call the government under the PRI “the perfect dictatorship”.

The presumed president-elect, Peña Nieto, has sought to distance himself from the old PRI, stating in his first op-ed after the results were declared that his win does not mean a return to the old ways of his party and reaffirming his commitment to democracy. However, the deep discontent among Mexicans persists with the mostly young protestors drawing inspiration from the Occupy movement, the Indignados of Spain and the Arab Spring in demanding “real democracy” for Mexico.

With many movements demanding democracy all over the world, a very interesting initiative  called the Globalbarometer Surveys (GBS) needs to be highlighted. This project seeks to “develop a global intellectual community of democracy studies surveying ordinary citizens”. The GBS surveys three continents with the help of five regional networks covering Europe, Africa, East and South Asia, Central and South America, and the Middle East. In an event last year in Bangalore, “The Multiple Meanings of Democracy” some interesting trends from the various country surveys were discussed.

The Latinobarómetro, which is based in Chile, has carried out regular surveys of opinions, attitudes and values in Latin America since 1995. Every year they publish a detailed report in Spanish offering a broad view of popular opinion in the eighteen major countries of Latin America, focusing on Latin American citizens’ political opinions and their satisfaction with their governments. Their 2011 report reveals that Mexicans are the least satisfied with the way democracy works in their country among all eighteen countries surveyed.

Latinobarómetro does offer some hope to the Mexicans’ desire to democratise their country. The graph below (made using data made available online by Latinobarómetro) shows a steady fall in the support for an authoritarian regime among Mexicans. It is now up to the new government to ensure that that the number of Mexicans increasingly indifferent to who governs them change their minds.


Nivedita Kashyap works at a research based think tank in Bangalore.

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