Never-ending pacification: Negotiated order-making at Brazil’s urban margins

By Matthew Richmond

September 7, 2021

Between 2008 and 2016, the state authorities of Rio de Janeiro rolled out a programme of “police pacification” across many of the city’s favelas (informal settlements). The programme sought to establish permanent police presence in these territories, which had long been key operating sites for the city’s three major drug trafficking factions (the ‘Red Command’, ‘Third Command’ and ‘Friends of Friends’). The stated aims were to reduce the violence linked to Rio de Janeiro’s drug trade and weaken the traffickers’ control in the favelas: both were presented as pre-conditions for allowing the state to operate more effectively within them and improve public security across the wider city. Whether consciously or not, the name chosen for the programme invoked a long and global history.

In an article published in 2011, Mark Neocleous noted that the first development of “pacification” as a security strategy appears in Bernardo de Vargas Machuca’s ‘Milicia Indiana’, published in 1599. This was a military handbook for colonial commanders in the New World, recommending the use of aggressive tactics against resistant indigenous populations, but also other actions such as gathering information on their customs and promoting trade. Centuries later, Neocleous notes, the term was used in numerous neocolonial conflicts, including by the US in Vietnam. There, the so-called ‘New Model Pacification Programme’ proposed that occupying forces needed not only to defeat the insurgents militarily, but also “create a socio-political environment in which future insurgency would not flourish again”. Echoing Neocleous, João Pacheco de Oliveira has identified the similarities between police pacification in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil’s long history of internal colonisation, whereby colonisers would simultaneously repress and offer “protection” to the indigenous groups they encountered at the frontier.

Throughout this history–from early colonial ventures to contemporary counter-insurgency actions across the globe, including Rio de Janeiro’s favela pacification programme itself–pacification appears as a particular approach to security, whereby states seek to violently conquer territory while also establishing broader interventions that they expect will create lasting stability. In other words, pacification here is understood as a top-down project, conducted by states and their frontline agents, in particular the police, which aims to neutralise the threats posed by colonised populations to state orders.

28 November 2010: security forces occupy the Complexo do Alemão favelas, thus setting off the pacification process in the region. Credit: Agência Brasil through Wikimedia Commons

These arguments offer important insights into security dynamics in urban Brazil today and the social and racial injustices they reproduce. However, during fieldwork in a pacified Rio de Janeiro favela in 2013, I began to question the interpretation of pacification as a top-down, state-centred project. Despite the presence of a police base in the centre of the favela, police control felt far more fragile than I had expected. I observed that officers rarely wandered far from the base, and it was not uncommon to see groups of teenagers smoking marijuana nearby. Indeed, some residents complained that the police “turned a blind eye” to petty criminality in the neighbourhood. This had even made some feel less secure than they had before pacification, when the drug traffickers had been unambiguously in charge.

Overall, it seemed, police proved far less effective at deterring antisocial behaviour than the traffickers had been. Even if some officers acted aggressively with local youths, they faced constraints to their ability to investigate and punish suspected criminals that traffickers do not. They were also often held in lower esteem. As a result, I inferred that the local police had ended up having to rely on the traffickers, who remained present in the neighbourhood, to continue to maintain order. As one resident put it to me in an interview in July 2013:

We know who they are. The police also know who they are. But it’s like this […] they maintain a certain order. Because they’re people that the rest of the young people respect, it helps to keep things ok. They help to improve things.

That is to say, “pacification” could only achieve its aim of reducing the violence surrounding the drug trade if police and traffickers, at least implicitly, cooperated with one another. Michel Misse has described how the exchange of money, influence and favours between criminal and state actors, in a word corruption, is fundamental to the everyday functioning of illegal markets in Brazil. While I could not verify any such exchanges in my fieldwork, cases were uncovered in other pacified favelas. However, even without direct, instrumental exchanges between traffickers and police, it is clear to see how they could come to perceive certain shared interests and adapt their behaviour accordingly. If traffickers avoided provoking the police this would allow police to avoid interfering with the drug trade, which, in turn, would allow the traffickers to continue to maintain “order” in the neighbourhood. If so, rather than being a process unilaterally imposed by the state, “pacification” would represent a form of order local based on negotiated coexistence between police and drug traffickers.

If criminal actors were necessary to making police ‘pacification’ minimally workable under a policy specifically designed to reduce their influence, I felt it would be necessary to rethink what pacification was in the context of contemporary Brazil. Vera Silva Telles’ book A Cidade nas Fronteiras do Legal e Ilegal (The City at the boundary of the Legal and the Illegal), focused on the city of São Paulo, helped me to untangle this knot.

Telles notes that dynamics of order-making in the peripheries of São Paulo have evolved over time. During the 1980s, ‘justiceiros’ (local vigilante strongmen) acted as informal police in many peripheral neighbourhoods and repressed small-scale criminality. During the 1990s, violent gangs proliferated and overwhelmed these forms of order-making, leading to widespread inter-gang conflict and a dramatic rise in homicides. In the early 2000s, however, a prison-based gang, the First Command of the Capital (PCC), began to spread across the city and establish hegemony over the criminal world.

The PCC achieved this by establishing its own complex hierarchy and parallel justice system based around so-called “debates” – elaborate tribunals held for those accused of contravening the organisation’s rules. The imposition of these mechanisms served to disrupt the cycles of revenge killings that had caused so much inter-gang violence. By the early 2010s, it had led São Paulo to have the lowest homicide rate of any major Brazilian city. Telles tentatively described the PCC’s rise as a process of “pacification”. However, it is clearly a very different one to that implied by police pacification in Rio. The PCC, rather than the state, was the primary actor in this process. It had produced order by establishing mechanisms of control and conflict reduction that would maintain relatively low levels of violence.

However, similarly to what I observed in Rio, state agents have also acquiesced in this process in different ways. On occasion this may have occurred through conscious high-level decisions (it is widely believed that the “PCC attacks” in São Paulo in 2006 ended after an agreement was reached with the state authorities). Mainly, however, accommodations occur at a local level, in ways similar to those described above. When conducting fieldwork in a peripheral São Paulo neighbourhood in August 2017, I asked a local resident about a drug-dealing point that was located some 100 metres from a police station. He replied:

What we think is that there’s involvement. […] Because there are police right there on the doorstep, and the drug trafficking is out in the open. So, no one is interested in reporting it, because who are you going to report it to? Who doesn’t know?

As this suggests, the process of “pacification” in Brazilian cities today in fact rests on two separate and intertwined processes. Firstly, it requires the consolidation of forms of authority within the criminal world that can uphold order and avert the recourse to violence. Secondly, it requires that state actors, in particular frontline police, allow these forms of authority to operate. In this way, pacification in fact emerges only when states empower criminal actors to play a function that they are not able or willing to play alone. State actors may place implicit conditions or constraints on the exercise of these forms of authority, but they cannot do away with them nor substitute them. It is important to note that even if pacification, understood in this way, is able to reduce violence and produce relative “order”, it should not be seen as a normatively positive development. Telles emphasises that the PCC-led pacification in São Paulo entrenched extra-legal practices by both criminals and police, and continually creates states and spaces of exception. This denies those who live under such conditions access to accountable forms of public security. It also does not remove violence from these relationships, but merely regulates it. Indeed, the threat of violence remains a key tool in the never-ending negotiations among different criminal and state actors that sustain pacification. When negotiations break down, as they are always liable to, the underlying violence of pacification again comes into view.

Matthew Aaron Richmond is Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the London School of Economics Latin America and Caribbean Centre (LSE LACC) and is Secretary of the Latin America Geographies Working Group of the Royal Geographical Society. You can follow him on Twitter @mattyrichy

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