Living in the Crossfire: Favela Residents, Drug Dealers, and Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro by Maria Helena Moreira Alves and Philip Evanson (review)
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Living in the Crossfire: Favela Residents, Drug Dealers, and Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro, Maria Helena Moreira Alves and Philip Evanson. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011. 254 pages, 7 b/w illustrations, 3 figures. $79.50 cloth; $34.95 paper and e-book. ISBN 978-1-43990-004-8.

“Better his mother’s son dies, than my mother’s son.” This refrain punctuates the often-poignant chorus of voices that Maria Helena Moreira Alves and Philip Evanson present in Living in the Crossfire. The expression refers to the dilemma faced by police in Rio de Janeiro who enter favelas hiding hostile drug traffickers. The heuristic explanation given to justify killing innocent favela residents, even children, is that their training manual does not square away with what often becomes a survival scenario where the enemy is more heavily armed and more knowledgeable of the terrain.

Living in the Crossfire seeks out personal experiences, institutional failures and historical legacies shaping public security in Rio. The book is of a certain moment, a political juncture. It is a historical snapshot depicting the endgame of what the authors refer to as the “policy of confrontation.” This purview might make the book feel dated in light of the highly-publicized “pacification” strategy of occupation and community policing. However, the valuable interview material collected here shows the political ground, as well as the historical forces, with which shape the discussion about public security reform.

The central paradox of the book draws upon the observation that “democratic Brazil since 1985…has a much poorer record in human rights than the preceding military dictatorship” (114). To explore this contradiction in the context of Rio’s favelas, Alves and Evanson, as well as several human rights advocate colleagues who often appear as inter-locutors, present largely unadorned interview transcripts first with favela residents, then with public security officials, including then-President Lula Ignácio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro Governor Sérgio Cabral and his Secretary for Public Security José Mariano Beltrame.

These accounts, both personal and official, are titled “voices” but the former are also referred to throughout the book as “testimony.” This slippage reveals a certain asymmetry that the authors, deliberately or not, seem to want to convey about the different perspectives on violence, criminality, and human rights presented in the book: while “voices” is applied as neutral and universal frame for the contributions of all the interviewed individuals—whether resident, police officer, or government figure—the term “testimony” is reserved for the accounts provided by victims of police and drug-gang violence. Testimony suggests a legalistic understanding of these narratives, but at the cost of what other forms of telling? Living in the Crossfire clearly makes a case about police extrajudicial violence and impunity while also drawing attention to police officers’ own inadequate and maligned conditions as laborers within the state security apparatus. Alves and Evanson present the “testimonies” of favela residents and community leaders as raw accounts from the frontlines of conflict and terror.

It remains nonetheless unclear how the “law of silence”—the power of drug traffickers over residents’ capacity to address the gangs and their dominance over social life—might influence these testimonies. Indeed, in certain moments, narratives morph into desabafo: emotional outpouring, catharsis. The affective flow of residents’ narratives [End Page 207] sometimes exceeds the formal constraints of questions and answers, and, to the book organizers’ credit, these moments of mourning and desperation remain integrated into the transcripts. Many of the accounts are harrowing, such as the murder of a mother’s eight-year-old son shot by police in the doorway of his home holding a coin to buy bread. The psychic impacts of political violence do not appear here as sensationalized or exploitative but rather as fundamental to challenging the prevailing sanctioned methods of public security.

The painful stories recounted in the first section of Living in the Crossfire are complemented not so much by statistical evidence as by near-impossibility of accurate counting, or accounting. As one Military Police Lieutenant Colonel explains, official homicide figures do not include disappeared people and those deemed killed while “resisting arrest.” He estimates that, “in reality we are...