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Criminality and Evangelisms in the Favela: Ethnographical Notes from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil

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

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.


Past and Present Perceptions of the “Police Problem” in Mexico City

Keegan Boyar, Doctoral Candidate, History

Late one night this past summer, I was in the back seat of an Uber, returning home along the streets of Mexico City. Chattier than most, the driver asked what brought me to Mexico. I told him that I was here for dissertation research. “What’s your project?” he asked. “Well,” I said, trying to think of how to summarize it quickly and wondering how well it would go over in my functional but inelegant Spanish, “I’m researching the history of law and policing in Mexico City in the late 19th and 20th Centuries.” “Oh, the police,” he scoffed. “You know, there’s only one word you need to know to understand the police here in Mexico. Do you know what it is?” “No, what?” I said. He dramatically turned his head to face me. “CORRUPTION!”

For the rest of the trip, he expounded at length on his views about the problems with the police in Mexico—their inefficacy, their insufficient training, their frequent use of violence, and above all, their corruption. Although there were some novelties (notably, he briefly suggested that the Freemasons were ultimately to blame, although he refused to expand on this), by and large it was nothing I hadn’t heard before. What might be termed the “police problem” is a well-known issue in Mexico City. The police are widely distrusted by the broader population, and many people have their own stories, or know the stories of friends or family, about police extortion, abuse, and incompetent and/or insufficient service. Such issues frequently come up in news and writing about the city, as well.[1] Throughout, there is often a certain tension in these stories, in that residents widely believe that the criminal justice system does not function, yet also frequently complain about the perceived lack of police.

I think about these stories often while I work on dissertation research. My project, to give a more complete description, examines the institutional and social construction of public order and security in Mexico City and the surrounding Federal District from about 1870 to 1950. These were years of dramatic upheaval. The capital went from a stagnant city of a couple hundred thousand residents, still mostly concentrated near the old colonial central district and surrounded by farmland and lakes, to a bustling metropolis of millions that sprawled outward, building over former farms and drained lake beds and absorbing many of the once-distant suburbs into the rhythms of urban life. With this urban growth came the perception of supposedly “new” problems, including crime, unequal access to public services, and urban poverty, as well as the development of “modern” institutions to deal with them, such as new legal codes and professional police. Yet the reach of these institutions remained limited. Many city residents lived in a state of quasi-illegality, their survival dependent on informal relations of clientelism and unofficial toleration from authorities that could be revoked at any moment. People used, debated, and at times resisted these institutions in a variety of ways, shedding light on the tensions between the formal order set forth by the state through legal codes and institutions, and the informal but no less regulated order carried out in the practices of daily life in the city. Ultimately, the conversation between informal practices and formal regulation came to be at the heart of everyday life in Mexico City, and embedded in the foundations of the Mexican state.


Figure 1. Much of my research has been in the National General Archive, or AGN, which is housed in the former national penitentiary–apt, considering my project.


Understanding the history of the “police problem”—and of police-public relations in general—is of course a major part of my project. As historians have shown, the Mexico City police (as well as laws and regulations more generally) largely functioned to target the urban poor and working classes for scrutiny, arrest, and abuse. Yet this did not preclude these same residents from trying to make use of the police and criminal justice system as they struggled to survive. Indeed, a variety of sources suggest that, while those who lived on the margins of society were the most likely to be victimized by police abuse, their marginal status limited their access to some other forms of authority, and they therefore often had to turn to the police to mediate their disputes or use the police in concert with other tools.[2] Meanwhile, residents of all classes in newly constructed, sometimes unlicensed neighborhoods on the outskirts of the expanding city frequently wrote in to request police services, complaining that they were targeted by criminals in the absence of police.[3]

It was this environment, where fear of crime met fear of police abuse, that gave shape to many of the documents that I have found in my research. One that stands out in particular comes from the personal correspondence of Félix Díaz, the nephew of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and, prior to the Revolution, the police chief of Mexico City.[4] On August 18, 1910, a man named Carlos Espino Barros wrote a letter to Díaz. In it, he said that he had heard from an eyewitness about “a savage attack committed by several police against a decent young man, of recommendable appearance,” on August 16. He had come to suspect that the assault had been “a true crime,” and as the witness thought that the young man might have died of his injuries, Espino asked Díaz if that was in fact the case. Although Espino’s poor health prevented him from going in person to talk to Díaz, or going before a judge to press for an investigation, he invited the police chief to send “a person of your confidence and who you know to keep secrets” to his home to discuss the matter further with him. Discretion was of the utmost importance, Espino wrote, because “I do not want to provoke the vengeance of the alluded-to police”. Despite the danger, he wrote to inform Díaz to show him how “certain police” dealt with “defenseless drunks, above all if they are decent and find themselves far from the city center,” as was the case in the attack in question. In response to the letter, Díaz sent the head of the Reserve Police (the investigative branch of the police) to investigate its claims. After checking with other police officials, he concluded that the young man in question had not been killed or injured, and had been released the following day. The official also interviewed Espino, who said he had heard about the incident from a young woman whose address he did not know.


Figure 2. “First page of letter, Carlos Espino Barros to Félix Díaz, August 18, 1910.

AGN / Archivos Privados / Félix Díaz / Caja 7 / Exp. 61 / Fs. 704-705.


Several points stand out in the letter and Díaz’s response. Espino’s fear of reprisal for speaking out about police violence suggests the high degree of distrust many residents felt toward the police, as does his belief that “certain police” routinely mistreated those they arrested. Yet this distrust was not absolute: not only did Espino take care to specify that it was only “certain police” (and not a systematic problem), but the fact that he wrote to Díaz with the evident hope that the police chief would listen and take action demonstrates some level of trust in police authorities. Similarly, Espino’s emphasis that the victim was “decent,” and his charge that police especially targeted “decent” people who were drunk, suggests the ways in which social status shaped perceptions of policing. While the police regularly and violently arrested those who were drunk in public[5], this instance of police abuse was particularly intolerable because it transgressed class boundaries, subjecting a member of the “decent” classes to the same violence regularly meted out to the urban poor. It’s also possible that this concern was animated by anxiety over Espino’s own social status. Although he did not specify his work, he was literate in a society with high illiteracy, indicating more education than many, but lived in a predominantly working-class neighborhood. Clearly striving to assert his own respectability, he may have seen police violence against the “decent” classes as a sign of the fragility of his own social status.

Finally, Espino’s letter sheds light into how knowledge of policing was constructed. Discussions of police violence spread along social networks, as people discussed incidents they had seen or had heard about from friends, neighbors, or other city residents. Rumor and fact mixed with residents’ preexisting anxieties and prejudices. In many ways, the stories people told about police violence, corruption, and incompetence parallel the stories that are told by residents of Mexico City today. While Espino may not have thought that freemasons were ultimately behind everything (or at least he didn’t say so in his letter), had he been able to meet the talkative Uber driver, he may well have found many other areas of agreement.


[1] For instance, the author and journalist Héctor de Mauleón recently reported on a failed attempt to film a nighttime special in the neighborhood of Tepito, an area with a longstanding reputation for crime. Upon arriving and asking a passing police patrol if they would be patrolling there that night, the journalists were told that the police would not be back until the next morning “due to the insecurity.”

[2] Working- and lower-class women, in particular, often had to turn to the police to intervene in domestic disputes, where the patriarchal power of the husband over the family normalized domestic violence against women. In one example from 1904, a woman asked the police to arrest her husband for verbal and physical abuse. However, the husband’s friends, family, and neighbors, variously claiming that there was no reason to arrest him or that they did not know why he was being arrested, intervened, allowing the husband to escape. Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) / Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal (TSJDF) / Siglo XX (S.XX) / Caja 14 / Exp 1067.

[3] For a 1916 example, see: Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México / Municipalidades / Tacubaya / Policía / Caja 374 / Exp. 36.

[4] The following information comes from: AGN / Archivos Privados / Félix Díaz / Caja 7 / Exp. 61 / Fs. 704-705.

[5] See, for example: AGN / TSJDF / S.XX / Caja 326 / Exp. 58694. In this case from 1904, police arrested a woman for public drunkenness and for supposedly attacking the arresting officer. She, in turn, argued that the police had assaulted her and she was merely defending herself. Despite medical examination revealing substantial evidence that she had been beaten, the judge threw out the charges against her but also refused to investigate the possibility of police abuse.