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  • Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security
  • Bryan McCann
Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security. By Enrique Desmond Arias. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xx, 279. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $59.95 cloth; $22.50 paper.

In Rio de Janeiro, one often hears the assertion that criminal gangs took advantage of an absence of state power to seize control of the city's favelas. In this understanding, the gangs are a "parallel power" that filled a vacuum created by the state's negligence. This assertion was originally proffered by social scientists but is now equally likely to be espoused by NGO representatives, members of the gangs, and elected officials themselves. This important book conclusively demonstration the falsity of the rhetoric of "parallel powers."

Through painstaking research and tough-minded analysis, Arias shows not only that the state is and has long been present in Rio's favelas, but that increasing government intervention has often coincided with increasing gang control. This is so not merely because corrupt police accept bribes from criminals, although that is the most important factor. It is so because since the 1980s successive city and state governments have chosen to channel resources through neighborhood associations widely known to be dominated by criminal networks. As Arias writes, "the more state and political investment, the more powerful the illegal network" (p. 85). Arias argues this has often proved true of investment in both security and social services. Security campaigns that have not included a thorough crackdown on police corruption merely raised the value of that corruption, ultimately strengthening the networks that were able to pay the price. Funding for social services channeled through neighborhood association with criminal connections has strengthened the networks politically as well as financially, reinforcing their power to make deals and dole out favors. "The result," Arias demonstrates, "is that, more than just filling in space left by the government, illegal networks appropriate existing state and societal resources and power [End Page 308] and use them to establish protected areas in which traffickers can engage in illegal activities. More than parallel 'states' or 'polities,' drug trafficking in Rio represents an expression of transformed state and social power at the local level" (p. 196).

The heart of Arias's work consists of case studies of the recent history of three diverse favelas. The first, in an otherwise upper middle-class neighborhood, is relatively well-served in terms of government investment, but has long been marked by violent gang battles. The second is a small settlement in a working-class neighborhood, where corrupt police feel no need to conceal their extortion of bribes, knowing they are far from media attention. The third is the favela of Vigário Geral, internationally known because of the grisly massacre carried out there by off-duty policemen in 1993, and because of the subsequent rise of reformist NGOs like the Casa da Paz and the Grupo Cultural Afro-Reggae. Despite their differences, these neighborhoods share a history of domination by violent gangs and similar experiences in the attempted creation of countervailing networks, designed to quell violence and strengthen citizenship. In all three cases, including the putative success story of Vigário Geral, these countervailing networks functioned only temporarily before internal dissent and changing gang tactics undermined their ability to forestall violence. Each of the cases studies is rich in detail drawn from Arias's exhaustive field research. His analysis reveals the pernicious compromises made in street-level negotiations, where NGO representatives and government officials have often forged deals with criminal networks for short-term improvements in neighborhood conditions. As Arias demonstrates, these compromises have given the networks leverage over the very groups ostensibly working to improve conditions.

Arias's analysis is by no means unremittingly pessimistic. He shows that the combination of increased police presence and the vigilance of countervailing networks have yielded impressive short-term improvements on a neighborhood level, and he offers cogent suggestions for sustaining these conditions. More importantly, however, he explains why current debates between advocates of increased security and advocates of increased social investment badly miss the mark...


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pp. 308-309
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