Memory, “urban violence” and criminal subjection in a Rio de Janeiro favela



A day of police operation in New Holland: on the hunt for the traffickers, who is suspect?

September 1, 2012, 9am morning. I took an alternative transportation from Copacabana to Maré. Very close to my destination, we got stuck in the central lane of Avenida Brasil shortly before reaching the 9th catwalk, height of the favela Nova Holanda. We saw the smoke from burning tires and people crossing other lanes of the avenue. The signs were clear that it was a demonstration against police violence. It was the one immediately concluded by a passenger beside calming, thus, the other people who until then were apprehensive before the lack of understanding of the event. At the Maré Arts Center, where the Free Human Rights Conference was scheduled to take place1, the mothers of the youths were executed by the police in another operation to hunt drug traffickers. There was also being advised by lawyers and militants of the DH the lady who had the house invaded by police who invaded his house and stole 1,460 reais. At one point a pressure group was withdrawn to go to the 22nd. Maré Battalion in order to support the leader of one of the organizers of the event in the conversation with police to clarify the facts. The goal was to gather as many reports as possible to record the occurrence on the 21st. Police station in another neighborhood. On the way we were informed that it was important to participate in the collection of the report of residents who were victims of the operation at the headquarters of the institution. Arriving there, we settled into a classroom where the pre-college course, approximately 20 people, was held among residents, activists, activist-dwellers, and the testimony of a survivor was soon commenced. Just before the police started the operation, around 8 o’clock in the morning, the boy left the motorcycle to buy bread. He said he had been targeted by the police at that time: “I saw the bullet ‘popping’ on top of me, I dropped the bike on the ground, I saw that they were looking at me”, “in their sight black on the street is bad guy.” It is significant that it is not about being at the wrong time and in the wrong place. In this logic anyone can be a victim of missed bullets in an unexpected exchange of shots, which obviously happens a lot. But not in this case.

On the same day, in everyday situations where I participated, I heard several comments made by different people about the executions and they all raised the same question: “but were they not bandits?”, That is, even if the danger of lost bullets is reality of the streets, yet some people do not see themselves as presumed or actual targets of violence. The dead or near-dead are under suspicion. In another report, a resident, besides questioning the profile of the young people killed, also criticized the police operation:

The police know full well that coming in from the caveirão early in the morning will have shots, they know that the ‘guys’ [villains] are crazy at the end of the shift, they are frantic, the cops know this very well, armed from the dawn [traditional Maré popular fair] and that the people are in the street, but the ‘guys’ have not yet gone to sleep, so they come in knowing what will happen, this I think is wrong, they [police] know where it is the buzz and if you enter you will exchange [shots] with the guys, so they had to avoid, what do they get out of it? Anything! It’s a war thing the cops want, that’s all. “ [Living in New Holland – 01/09/2012]

By bringing the dimension of the war’s intentionality, the villager unites bandits and policemen in a same value logic that shifts the argument from the deviance of action. Following this logic, in the street everyone is in danger. In New Holland, on a Saturday day, it impresses the intense movement of people, the confused and hopeless traffic of motorbikes, cars, people and various crowds at the corners and bars. This is the scene of a day considered “quiet”, of “peace” and “leisure”. After episodes of police violence such as that mentioned, we can observe the reestablishment of the routine when, among the possible references, small groups of young boys are formed who “stop at the corners”, integrating the so-called “trams”. Bonde2 is a term used in the funk universe since the 90s (Cecchetto, 1997) to designate networks of friendships and establishment of alliances between groups. The great majority of streetcars that “stop at the corner” are boys, aged between 12 and 19, who share a minimum degree of leisure routines at times that vary depending on the school activity and / or work participants of each collective. In addition to territorial dominance, trams participate in a dynamic of male sociability that no longer values ??physical struggle as a marker of collective interactions. Some conflicts and interpersonal rivalries are subject to the control of the “bandit,” called the “boss” – who exercises sovereign power in the territory for the sale of illicit drugs in retail. The armed defense of the local drug trade is linked to a faction that delimits a circuit and a network of alliances between criminal groups in Rio de Janeiro. The “disposition” of the “boss” to kill and make decisions by force is regulated, to a certain extent, by the mediation of moral authorities embodied in mothers and evangelical women (Leite, 2008). “Considering” the “human subject” is another moral that encompasses the male world of trams and the “world of crime,” which, according to Gabriel Feltran, is the “set of codes and sociabilities established at the local level around illicit drug trafficking, theft and robbery “(Feltran, 2008: 93). Male morality, as a regulation of actions, establishes values ??of reciprocity to some extent. I say to a certain extent because the armed power of traffickers is always on the horizon of the day-to-day management of conflicts, serving as a significant reference in anticipating the risks recognized by an external force that subjects people.

In another research, I considered the construction of this subjective reality, taken in its sense of “physical-moral” disturbance (Duarte, 1987), perceived by the category “neurosis” (Mattos, 2006, 2012). In exploring the uses and meanings of “neurosis” I understood that this external life of individual affectation recognizes a new pattern of violent sociability (Machado da Silva, 2008). In the 2000s, the fighting groups were “pacified” and controlled conflicts in order to create a regulated, predictable male conviviality. To this day, the delimitations of the groups for friendship experience the peaceful coexistence between “subject men”, in which, ideally, they are all equal since it does not confront the armed man. In this context, young boys’ trams are active characters in the “leisure” of streets and corners, parties and dances, inserted in a network of complex interactions marked by the boundaries between trams, thieves and “bandits”.

“Urban violence” and policies of representation of the “favelado”


The growth of Maré is associated with the construction of Avenida Brasil and the arrival of industries that formed a belt along the avenue in the urban-industrial development period of the 1930s and 1940s. The area was originally formed by isolated nuclei of occupations that expanded for mangrove swamp lands by building stilts and landfills. Between the 40’s and 60’s, under the impact of Avenida Brasil, the number of constructions in precarious urban conditions increases. In 62 and 63, public investments were started for the construction of the Provisional Housing Center (CHP), called New Holland, which was created to house people removed in the context of the slum removal policy of the Carlos Lacerda government. The provision of water and light improved housing conditions by stimulating the growth and integration of adjacent areas. Thus, New Holland and other favelas of Maré are a creation of the State (Ribeiro da Silva, 2006). The CHP New Holland was composed of wooden houses distributed in two types of housing units, “single individual units” and “double units on two floors (known as the ‘wagon’ or ‘duplex’ model). The “wagon” or “duplex” model housed the poorest households, integrating several households within a housing unit (Nóbrega Júnior et al, 2012). In 1984, Chapa Rosa, constituted for the electoral contest of the residents’ association, took office assuming the flag of the housing issue and, through the creation of a cooperative, stimulated self-construction. It is stated that at the time mentioned, of the 3000 dwellings, about 1000 belonged to families who could not invest in self-construction; among them, 228 duplex huts needed emergency reform. This was where one of the most important mobilizations of New Hollanders (NH) began: “It was there that the struggle of the New Holland people’s movement in housing began” (ibid .: 102).

However, another frame of reference disputes the meaning of housing for the poor. In the stereotypical imagery of the Tide, NH occupies the place of the “black-poor-favelado”. The value ratios of “race” / color and “class” are also operated in the hierarchical social production of spaces. Edir Melo (2010) shows how the state division of the residents between “enrolled”, “removed” and “invaders” in the distribution of COHAB housing in Cidade de Deus was a type of unequal classification that served to delimit moral and territorial boundaries among residents associated with types of dwellings and spaces. The stigma of violence and marginality served as a dividing line between “favelados” (“removers” -dammers of the Apes and “invadores” -mourners of the Triages) and “no favelados” (“enrolled” -moradores of the Houses). I lived in NH from 1985 to 2008 where I grew up listening to the stereotypes associated with the Duplex: the poorest families, racially identified as the blackest people and also the “most favelas”. The profile associated with the “favelados” not only indicated the place of housing of the blacks and the poor, it was a way of categorizing the other “uncivilized”. In view of this, the struggle story of the residents of the Duplex contrasts with the stigma of the “favela” territory that operates on a micro scale the wider and more segregated “favela” and “city” opposition.

The stigmatizing representation of Duplex dwellers, present in the 1980s, has been transformed during the 1990s. The image of the “favelados” changes and begins to typify risk behaviors by focusing on a new actor: young people seen as participants close to the world of crime. Before continuing with the contextualization of the Duplex in this imaginary, it is necessary to emphasize that the theme youth and crime has as paradigm the phenomenon of galeras funk in the city of Rio de Janeiro. The galleys became known through the “trawler” – collective robbery – of October 18, 1992, on the beach of Ipanema, Zona Sul, when public discussion about the place of the poor in the city and on the political agenda of the State was triggered. We tried to explain the sense of patrimonial and physical insecurity, resulting from episodes considered part of what was called “urban violence”. The re-readings followed a specific logic of interpretation based on what Márcia Leite (2000) defined as a metaphor for the war between the “favela and the asphalt”. The repeated images on TV showed a crowd of bathers running in different directions and focused on scenes of physical aggression among groups of youngsters – blacks – soon identified as funerals. The disputed disputes were immediately associated with the criminal factions that operate in the favelas of Rio. According to Herman Viana (1996), the trawlers served as logical operator in the process of transforming funk from exotic to familiar, a familiarization with a strong sense of otherness through criminalization. Olívia Cunha (2001) pointed out that even before the famous images there was some discomfort regarding the presence of “suburban-farofeiros” on the beaches in the South Zone, as well as there was already a fear of collective assaults already named as trawlers. This discomfort proves the existence of a public construction of the fear of violence at a time when the gaze was directed at the favelas. Keeping order in the city meant guarding these territories. The occupation of the Army during the Rio 92 Conference, Operation Summer – police approaches to discipline young people on their way to the beaches – and the well-known complaints against bus lines linking the North Zone to the South Zone – are examples of this vigilance ( Cunha, 2001) (Leite, 2000).

At the same time, the “favelado” category began to criminalize some young NH residents. The preexisting stigma of prosecution is reinterpreted under the key of violence. What is at stake in the symbolic connection between the representations of “urban violence” and the experiences of the residents? The 1990s were marked by the reconfiguration of criminal violence in drug trafficking, increasingly sustained by clashes between factions and unpredictable rules of social control in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. According to Machado da Silva (2008), the collective representation denominated “urban violence” perceives the specific development of the force produced by the crime, and not the crime itself. For the author, this perspective is of great importance, since it refers to the plan of social relations and the impact of what he called violent sociability. The ostentation and imposition by armed force, as well as the articulation of drug trafficking to all illicit practices in the territory are perceived as being within a specific “organization” that affects everything and everyone, directly or indirectly.

The identification of the domain of trafficking in favelas has transformed it into areas of risk and moral contamination, and, as a presupposition of this notion, its residents are supposed to be “coexisting” with a subculture of crime. (Machado da Silva & Leite, 2008). Young men and women who enjoy funksão dances are the segment “at risk” of joining the crime. In this case, leaving the streets and corners, failing to attend dances in slums and using slangs are behaviors that distinguish the body / manner of the “bandit” from the “common dweller” and serve as a moral cleansing resource against “favelado” behavior 4 The idea that one can get someone out of the favela but not “take the favela out of someone else” gains all its force in this context of the transformations of the violence described. The young “favelado” has the racially identified body under which the soul is inscribed, and its criminal subjection as categorized by Michel Misse (1999). 5. The “favelado” becomes a category of incrimination independent of criminal practice. In this sense, the diversity of cultural practices and the memories of the residents’ struggles are important reinventions of the present, which, in turn, demarcate an ethical-political field of alternative representations to the stigma of violence. And yet, a more affirmative movement that questions the moral cleansing of the “favelado” as a way of resisting criminalization and racism in its microphysical and institutional 6 dimensions becomes fundamental.

Carla dos Santos Mattos – PhD student in Social Sciences from PPCIS UERJ and researcher at the Collective of Violence and Sociability Studies (CEViS).

1? Event organized by the Institute of Religion Studies (ISER), Fight for Peace, Tidal Networks and Observatory of Favelas.

2? Once highlighted that this is a native category and repeated throughout the text, I use it without quotes.

3. The language of violence, which establishes “gatherings of forces” in which the villagers are subordinates to the “bandits”, is part of an order that works beyond the logic of war, more routinized but no less violent. This perspective is supported by Machado da Silva (2008) when formalizing a typical ideal model of contiguity between the order of crime – violent sociability – and the institutional-legal order. In the first, the armed and individualistic domination of its agents not only represents a weakening of reciprocal ties, but above all an armed imposition that instrumentalizes relations and which in fact hinders moral regulation, drawing, to some extent, clear contours between the legal-illegal, whose frontier is perceived indefinitely in representations about “urban violence.”

4 ‘ In this condition of subalternization in the living space and strong stigmatization in the city’s imaginary, the residents need to elaborate forms of moral distinctions with the world of crime. In the set of identifications about the target population of social policies (Birman, 2008), the residents use available resources of moral cleanliness – based on the identification of “worker” and “well” person (Leite, 2008) – both in its own context of daily interaction, as well as in situations involving public expression of political representation and access to justice. Moral cleanliness is also a feature present in the repertoires of social projects aimed at young people “at risk”, as analyzed by Lia Rocha (2011).

5 ‘ I think of criminal subjection as Michel Misse (1999; 2010) conceptualized: the social and historical representation that inscribes crime in the subjectivity of the agent defined as criminal. From this conception, the “bandit” is a social category of a subjective type linked to the emergence of the illegal drug trade in the favelas “produced by police interpellation, public morality and criminal laws” (Misse, 20120: 17).

6 ‘ See Foucauld’s analysis of institutional racism as technologies of sovereign and biopolitical power in Milk (2012).

Carla dos Santos Mattos – PhD student in Social Sciences from PPCIS UERJ and researcher at the Collective of Violence and Sociability Studies (CEViS).





The two documentaries depict the struggle for housing started in the 1980s and narrated by the inhabitants of the Duplex itself, a locality of New Holland, one of 17 Maré favelas, located in the Leopoldina Zone between the two main avenues that cross Rio de Janeiro, Avenida Brazil and the Red Line. The video was produced in the early 90’s and was published on Youtube by O Diary Blog




The video, also available on Youtube, is a mid-2000 video shoot produced by young men portraying their leisure moments in the same location as Videos 1 and 2.



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