Ana Beraldo, PhD, Sociology, Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil/ Former Visiting Student, CLAS (2018–19)
Figure 1. Morro da Luz, picture taken by the author, April 2019
A Fortress of Crime
“We live in a fortress of crime,” said Thiago (pseudonym) as he tried to explain to me how daily life works for those who live in favelas. He is a 23-year-old black man who I met while conducting my doctoral ethnographic fieldwork at Morro da Luz (fictitious name), a large shantytown in the city of Belo Horizonte[i], Brazil. I myself grew up in the same city, in a middle-class neighborhood not far away from Morro da Luz, and yet I noticed that Thiago was making an effort to translate so that I could really grasp the reality he was portraying, at the same time so close and so distant from my own.
When Thiago described the favela as a “fortress of crime,” he was talking about how criminal groups, especially the ones involved in drug trafficking, create order in the territory by establishing moral parameters of rightness and fairness. Through actions such as punishing those that rob inside the community, killing socially recognized rapists, quickly taking sick people to the hospital, or making sure public service workers are well treated while performing duties that are important for neighborhood residents, criminals exert a governance that goes far beyond the limits of the criminal groups themselves and that regulates behaviors and relations in the peripheries in a broader sense.
Since these groups are heavily armed, their actions are anchored in the possibility of the use of force, and, not infrequently, in the actual use of it. But that alone would not be enough to form an effective criminal governance. Not just at Morro da Luz but in many similar places around Brazil and Latin America, criminal organizations have managed to successfully build for themselves a level of legitimacy that, although far from being total or hegemonic, is definitely significant.
Often enough, the governance exercised by criminal groups offers some protection—albeit in problematic ways —to a population vulnerable to many types of violence, from police brutality to insufficient access to rights. While there is a socially shared image of “favelados” (favela dwellers) as potentially dangerous people from whom the rest of society should be sheltered, and while this representation is deeply connected to security policies that are based on incarceration, persecution, and murder of this fraction of the population, criminal groups acting in those territories (whose members usually grew up in the same neighborhoods in which they now engage in illicit activities) are able to differentiate between the poor and act more accordingly to what is constructed as right. Thiago explains it once again: “Here there is no mugging, there is no rape, there is no this and that, but this is not because the police provides security for us, it is because the criminals don’t let it happen…we know that if it weren’t for them, things would be worse.”
A Battle against the Devil
As Thiago described those dynamics, he constantly emphasized that he does not approve of criminal activities nor does he agree with the violent ways in which criminal groups relate to each other, the police, and the community as a whole. As proof of that disagreement, he reminded me that he and his nine siblings grew up immersed in an evangelical environment, very much engaged with the activities of the church they attended on a daily basis— one among many scattered throughout the neighborhood.
Over the last five decades, Brazil has been experiencing important transformations, most strongly in the popular classes, both in regard to the religiosity of its people (with a reduction of Catholicism and a broadening of the evangelisms) and in regard to the dimensions and types of criminality and violence that characterize the country (with an expansion of illicit markets and an intensification of violent relations that are not exclusively, but considerably, related to those markets and to the ways they came to be structured in poor territories).
Interestingly, evangelical churches promote themselves precisely around the idea of a “battle against the devil,” and the devil, when it comes to places such as Morro da Luz, is profoundly linked to drug abuse and criminality. This has to do with Thiago’s argument that, since he was raised as a devoted evangelical, he could not agree with criminal activities. In Thiago’s claim, and in the discourses that circulate among poor Brazilian circles, crime and evangelism appear as rival sides of an everyday war for subjects and subjectivities. In that scenario, how can criminality and evangelism expand simultaneously in the same portion of the population?
Evangelisms in the Fortress of Crime
Figure 2. A pastor and an armed drug dealer talking, favela da Maré, Rio de Janeiro. Picture by Alan Lima, published October 19, 2017, available at https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2017/10/13/album/1507850793_088715.html#foto_gal_1.
Through the ethnographic study I conducted in Morro da Luz, I identified that evangelisms and criminality are entangled, and that they connect with each other by two main phenomena: the conversion (from criminal, drug dealer, addict, to believer, evangelical, pastor)[ii] and the figure of the outlaw evangelical, increasingly common in the urban outskirts.[iii]
The converts experience a transformation of who they are, a construction of a new identity that is formed in opposition, but always attached, to the old one: they are and forever will be “ex-criminals,” “ex-traffickers,” “ex-addicts,” and so on. The converted bodies and presences in the favela seem to be signified as the living proof of the religious capacity of “salvation.”
At the same time, there are subjects that are “bandits” and “believers” who, while immersed in criminal networks, are also evangelical religious. In fact, for those who are inserted in illegal markets and in violent sociability, religious spaces can be one of the few places where they can take a break from the constant and tiring task of avoiding death[iv].
Both the convert and the criminal believer are usually very well received and integrated in evangelical temples and social relations. In my fieldwork in Morro da Luz, I realized that this is socially possible because the war the evangelisms are fighting is not between pastors and drug dealers, nor between religious and sinners, but between god and the devil. That is why Thiago could, at the same time, disapprove of criminality and recognize the criminals as a source of protection for the favela. The combat that goes on is otherworldly, transcendent. In the mundane sphere, they are all flawed humans, and, most importantly, they are all “favelados.”
[i] Belo Horizonte, a city with 2.5 million inhabitants, is located in the southeast of Brazil.
[ii] Also see: BRENNEMAN, R. “Wrestling the Devil: Conversion and Exist from Central American Gangs.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 112–128, 2014; and TEIXEIRA, C. A construção social do “ex-bandido.” [s.l.] Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2009.
[iii] See also: VITAL DA CUNHA, C. Oração de traficante: uma etnografia. 1. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Garamond LTDA, 2015.
[iv] See also: RUBIN, J. W., SMILDE, D., JUNGE, B. “Lived Religion and Lived Citizenship in Latin America’s Zone of Crisis: Introduction.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 7–26, 2014.