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Division of power on the periphery

Conflicts among the criminal world, organized religion and the State define social relationships on the margins of major cities

Military police helicopter conducts a search operation in São Paulo; (next page), a neighborhood on the periphery of the city’s east zone

Mário Ângelo / FolhapressMilitary police helicopter conducts a search operation in São PauloMário Ângelo / Folhapress

In Brazil today, areas on the urban periphery are run by three forms of “government” or normative regimes: that of the State, organized religion and the criminal world. They coexist despite their different internal dynamics. This is the finding of a research project entitled “On the Margins of the City,” under the coordination of Gabriel de Santis Feltran, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP). “Outside of the State-run legal system, there are norms that emanate from the criminal world and religious authorities, which are very present and operate in marginal urban areas,” says Feltran. “If someone is ill, he goes to the clinic; if their son is using drugs, the parents try to convince him to convert; if his house is robbed, he turns to crime to make things right. Therefore, in a certain way, criminal activity also plays a role in the legal system.”

The researcher says that the clash among these different dynamics is one of the main reasons that violence takes hold. “The research shows that people who live in these peripheral areas view all three as legitimate,” says Feltran, whose project was carried out at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP.

For religious believers, for example, the “government” of organized religion may be more important than that of the State. The influence of religion on daily life in the periphery areas is reflected mainly in the growth of Pentecostal Christianity, commonly referred to as Evangelical Christianity. Life is defined for the faithful from a religious viewpoint, whether in their daily habits such as the use of conservative dress or in their outlook on the world.  “When a religious believer does something wrong, it is the Devil at work. When he does something good, God is present. This way of thinking becomes a norm in daily life.”

A neighborhood on the periphery of the city’s east zone

Vinicius Pereira / FolhapressA neighborhood on the periphery of the city’s east zoneVinicius Pereira / Folhapress

For members of the largest criminal organization in São Paulo, the Primeiro Comando da Capital [First Command of the Capital] (PCC), the main concern is with their peers, who, according to Feltran, look like them: young, black, poor and inhabitants of the periphery.  Established in 1993 after the massacre at Carandiru prison, the PCC emerged as a means to survive in prison, whereby detainees seek the protection of faction members to protect themselves from torture by prison guards or other prisoners and guarantee access to meals and showers, the right to which is sometimes denied by prison officials as a form of punishment. The PCC’s activities include organizing rebellions and ordering criminal acts from prison like robberies, drug trafficking, kidnappings and murders.

“In view of the predominance of these forces, the principle of legality plays only a small role,” Feltran explains. “Violence is a result of the misalignment between the two worlds because laws that do not derive from the State will always be stifled by the State, and this leads to acute social conflict.” In an article published in late 2014 in the Caderno CRH, a social science journal published by the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), Feltran says that the three “government” regimes – that of the State, organized religion and the criminal world – regulate legal and illegal markets and promote economic growth. “Under organized religion, for example, followers tithe at least 10% of their income to the church. In the case of the State, it is direct and indirect taxation that we are all required to pay. And, when it comes to the criminal world, young people earn commissions of up to 50% selling drugs and then spend the money on legal goods in shopping centers.”

In general, the goal of the research project is to gain an understanding of current social conflict from the perspective of groups that are highly marginalized, most of whom have also turned to criminal activity: street people, the incarcerated, drug users and prostitutes, among others, along with their family members. Feltran concluded that from the stand point of the marginalized population, all three of these regimes are operating at the same time. And State-imposed norms are not always predominant, especially in the case of the most marginalized, like drug users and prostitutes.

Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the periphery of the southern zone of the city of São Paulo in search of new converts

Raimundo Pacco / Folhapress Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the periphery of the southern zone of the city of São Paulo in search of new convertsRaimundo Pacco / Folhapress

The project employs 17 ethnographic researchers in all, working in eight cities of varying sizes in different states – with more emphasis on Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In rural cities, the areas where research is being conducted cannot be identified because of the work being done with children and adolescents. “In conjunction with a broad network of national and international collaborators, we are working to formulate new theories to understand issues like violence, criminality, marginality and drugs,” the sociologist says.

In late April 2016, professors and researchers from all over the world met at the USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP) for a meeting focused on the topic of sources of power in the urban periphery to discuss standards of government and governance in large metropolitan areas like São Paulo, Paris, London, Milan and Mexico City. This was the fourth international seminar of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), whose goal was to identify similarities and differences among these cities by using case studies. Researchers identified one commonality in their research: the low level of federal involvement in public policies that have a direct impact on security in the cities analyzed.

Different paths
During the 1990s, São Paulo was the first state to implement a policy of mass incarceration and create a system of maximum security prisons in addition to being the first state to witness the growth in the largest and most organized criminal faction in the country, the PCC. More than 20 yeas later, Feltran emphasizes that this model, rather than reducing criminality, led to its growth. At the same time, previous studies conducted show that in the 2000s, leaders from the criminal world were responsible for a significant reduction – almost 70% in the state of São Paulo, between 2000 and 2010 – in the murders of young black Brazilians (defined as both dark-skinned and light-skinned according to IBGE classifications) and slum dwellers, protecting communities and preventing murders to settle scores between members of the PCC.

Members of the group Marcha da Periferia protest against police violence in Rio de Janeiro in 2013

Marcos Arcoverde/AEMembers of the group Marcha da Periferia protest against police violence in Rio de Janeiro in 2013Marcos Arcoverde/AE

Researcher Nancy Cardia, adjunct coordinator at USP’s Center for the Study of Violence (NEV), another RIDC, says that the PCC’s relationship with the surrounding community on the periphery of São Paulo is more complex and affects only one segment of the population. “The homicides continue, which shows that the PCC does not determine who lives and who dies.” Cardia also says incarceration contributes to the problems of the State by creating a network of vulnerability – including the detained and family members – removing these people from close family relationships that could help with the prisoner’s reintegration and thereby reduce their rates of recidivism in the prison system as well as criminal activity. “We have created a perverse system in which we guarantee recidivism with the emergence of these organizations and the management of these locales.”

Feltran says that the way the “criminal world” operates varies with the context. In São Paulo, for example, there are more similarities between the capital city and rural areas than there are between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. “Public safety policies are determined on a state level,” he points out. “In Rio, with a different local history and more emphasis on military control of territory – whether by criminal groups or the State – there are at least three important criminal factions, in addition to the militias.” While the PCC monopolizes the state of São Paulo and from there spreads to other states, Rio is controlled by an oligopoly: the drug market is lead mainly by the Comando Vermelho [Red Command] (CV) faction, Amigos dos Amigos [Friends of Friends] (ADA) e Terceiro Comando [Third Command]. “This was why, unlike in disputes in São Paulo, no pacification was achieved in Rio’s disputes,” explains João Manoel Pinho de Mello, a professor of economics at the Institute of Education and Research (Insper) in Rio, who studies criminality and public policy.

Another peculiarity of Rio is the occupation of favelas by the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs), which has put security at the top of the list of State policy priorities, thereby requiring other social actors in these areas to readjust to the possibility of military occupation. “For example, the sale of drugs continues to take place in all of the favelas in Rio occupied by the UPP,” according to Feltran. “However, it can no longer be carried out with handheld rifles.” Cardia says that relationships on the periphery of Brazilian cities are more complex and need further study to clarify the issues. “It is a challenge to find one simple explanation for what is happening on the periphery of Brazilian cities. This is a situation in transition, where both society and the city are being formed.”

CEM – Center for Metropolitan Studies (nº 2013/07616-7); Grant mechanism Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center (RIDC); Principal Investigator Marta Arretche (FFLCH-USP); Investment R$ 7,124,108.20 (for the whole project).

Scientific article
FELTRAN, G. S. Valor dos pobres: A aposta no dinheiro como mediação para o conflito social contemporâneo. Caderno CRH. V. 27, pp. 495-512. 2014.