Grass Roots Resilience, Security Governance, and Urbanism in Latin American Violent Cities

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, has been notorious for decades for its prevailing territorial pattern of violent contestation in the urban margins, in particular the favelas. These disputes pit various drug trafficking factions against each other and against the police, the military, and  criminal vigilantes (known as milícias) with ties to the police and local politicians.

This violence system shaped a law enforcement practice that rested on periodic violent incursions by the police (sometimes assisted by the armed forces). This created widespread distrust of the state among favela residents and an inhospitable environment for the many grass roots initiatives and community-based organizations, which include youth cultural groups, virtual communities on social media, churches, etc.

Increasingly, non-violence has become a core concern for these community-level actors. But in a city with a long history of elite-based and clientelist local politics and urban governance they fight an uphill battle. Over the past decade and a half, governance interventions in public security and urban upgrading were expected to bring change in terms of ‘pacification’ and urban inclusion.

Yet the impact has been limited, temporary, or reversed. The often acclaimed strategy of ‘pacification policing’ in favelas effectively collapsed after the Summer Olympic Games of 2016. Key factors were problems with design, implementation, governance, and political support. In addition, there was the difficulty to change police engagement with residents at the community level. So it proved to be very difficult to create a working alternative for the criminal governance of the non-state armed groups and violent policing in the city’s urban margins. Urban upgrading mostly took the form of investments in infrastructure and sports venues that catered to privileged sectors or proved to be unsustainable.

For practical purposes the pacification strategy collapsed in 2018 with the federal military intervention in public security in Rio de Janeiro. From a community perspective the prospects of resilience seemed to have been largely locked into an adaptation and mitigation mode.