n the summer of 2020, protests broke out in Brazil and the United States. In the US, they mobilized abolitionist worldviews that linked the uneven impacts of COVID-19 to the racialized state violence perpetrated against Black US citizens. In Brazil, the protests responded to mobilizations in support of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was being investigated for corruption and disinformation campaigns at the time. The anti-Bolsonaro movements criticized his administration’s COVID-19 response and carried the banners of anti-fascism, anti-racism, and democracy. In the US, a key trigger for the protests had been the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd alongside the broader state neglect characteristic of the COVID-19 era. In Brazil, too, scope of anti-Black state and interpersonal violence was staggering. The murder of 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto by police officers in a context of unabated lethal policing in Rio de Janeiro’s working-class, informal neighbourhoods known as favelas, prompted Black Lives Matter protests outside State Governor Wilson Witzel’s (2019-2021) office (Ruge, 2020). Yet, while the abolitionist debates in the United States had a global reach, the protests in the South of the Americas were not derivative; they were building on Brazil’s own rich history of Black organizing and thought against structural and visceral violence.

In this contribution, I discuss one illustrative example of a favela-led community approach to police violence. I focus on the work of the local NGO Redes da Maré, in Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo da Maré. Maré is home to 140,000 residents, who were 0.6 percent Indigenous and 62.1 percent Black or brown in 2012 (Redes da Maré, 2019a: 27). Redes has worked across the 16 favelas of Maré for over twenty years to address the political, economic, and cultural factors that reproduce inequality in Rio and constrain favela residents’ exercise of their citizenship. The organization approaches community development holistically by functioning through five branches: Art, Culture, Memory and Identities; Right to Health; Education; Urban and Socioenvironmental Rights; and Right to Public Security and Access to Justice. The NGO and the community organizers connected to it stand as evidence for favela residents’ political and creative power.

Redes bases its actions and projects on the promises of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution. To mitigate the immediate context of recurring violent police operations in the community, the organization has opted to engage with public authorities and even the police to help bring about sustained, evidence-based policy reform in a way that deepens Brazil’s democracy. This approach is fraught, even contradictory, considering that the Brazilian state and society have remained structurally settler colonial, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous, and militarized. But rights and policies also structure real opportunities for favela residents. On one hand, we can understand Redes’ rights-based approach as linked to the constraints of the NGOization of social movements in the post-1990s neoliberal context. Arguably, this conjuncture forces Redes to articulate its efforts through discourses and instruments that are broadly considered “legitimate.” On the other hand, Redes’ approach must be understood within the cacophonous context of simultaneous state and gang-related violence in favelas.

The organization also illustrates Brazil’s distinct history of political organizing. In Brazil, many social movements—including Indigenous and Black movements—have historically disputed and aimed to transform the state. The 1988 Constitution was also the result of decades of grassroots political mobilization; it is popularly known as Brazil’s Citizens’ Constitution, after all, for the deep expansion of civil rights it ratified. In other words, and adapting the words of Lewis and Jane Gordon, citizenship is “not only the master’s tool” (Gordon and Gordon, 2006, emphasis added). The history of social movements in Brazil suggests an understanding that it is not the state in abstractum that limits the realization of a radical democracy, but a specific, settler capitalist state. By bringing nuance to the role of the state and citizenship in struggles against violent policing, Maré’s and Brazil’s histories of state-society relations pushes at the limits of prevailing understandings of the relationship between statecraft and police power.

My contribution proceeds as follows. I begin with a brief context on policing and violence in Maré, followed by a discussion of two projects developed by Redes to address it. I conclude with a reflection on the limits and possibilities of this approach.

Policing and Violence in the Complexo da Maré

Under Brazil’s so-called War on Drugs, favelas have borne the brunt of a militarized public security paradigm and drug policy. This policy paradigm criminalizes poverty and defines favelas and their residents as the territories and population of Brazil’s “internal enemy,” the armed drug organizations popularly known as “factions” (Franco, 2014). In the name of this war, police operations in favelas have been increasingly lethal. According to Redes, in 2019, when Rio’s police killed a record of 1,814 persons, 70% of a total of 49 homicides in Maré were committed by the police. Every one of these victims was Black and a majority between the ages of 15 and 29 (Redes da Maré 2019b: 16-17). Moreover, Maré’s territory is contested by three drug trafficking organizations connected to two of the city’s primary factions, Comando Vermelho and Terceiro Comando Puro, as well as a police-connected militia. Maré’s militias are paramilitary-style forces composed of former and off-duty public security personnel and have links with Rio’s legislative and executive branches. Overall, these four-armed actors maintain territorial control over five distinct areas within Maré.

Between 2017 and 2021, there were 132 police operations and 114 reported episodes of conflict between armed groups in Maré. Over these five years, 246 moments of conflict caused 157 deaths, interrupted the operation of health units for 94 days and suspended schools for 70 days of classes. Together, this data suggests that the state has denied Maré residents’ (ostensible) rights not only to safety and public security but also access to basic services. In addition, Rio’s police forces have been known to extort or detain residents, invade their homes illegally, and/or damage their property. Police operations which typically include the use of tanks and helicopters produce the sensation of being under siege for residents and leave psychological marks on residents.

Two Examples of Community-Led Police Violence Prevention

Redes’ Right to Public Security and Access to Justice branch functions in this complex context of violence through four lines of action: knowledge production; the mobilization of Maré’s residents; the reception and assistance to victims of violence; and policy advocacy.

We Are From Maré, We Have Rights Campaign

A key issue faced by Redes, and many other community organizers is the need to challenge the naturalization of state neglect and violence among favela residents themselves. For Redes, citizenship and rights have been effective instruments to intervene into the discourses and policies that criminalize favelas and reproduce this status quo. This has been the goal of the Somos da Maré, Temos Direitos (“We Are From Maré, We Have Rights”) project, created in 2012. This long-term campaign aims to inform residents about their rights and the state’s duties, and frames safety as one basic and human right among many. It has included street campaigns such as the production and door-to-door distribution of booklets with information about what the police can and cannot do during police operations. These booklets can be hung on residences’ front doors. The campaign has also co-organized several collective spaces of dialogue and action, such as the “Enough Violence! Another Maré is Possible” Forum. This forum comprises a space for public debate among residents, local groups, community leaders, and organizations in Maré. In addition, campaign organizers mobilize residents after police operations to identify the areas that were most impacted by police action, establish a dialogue with residents on collective strategies to confront this violence, and develop the legal avenues to denounce and demand reparations from the state for damages. Relatedly, the Public Security and Access to Justice branch produces quantitative and qualitative data on violence in Maré that can be used to demand and design public policies. Since 2016, it has published the yearly Public Security Bulletin, which systematizes data on policing and violence in the community.

The Public Civil Action (ACP)

In 2017, the Right to Public Security and Access to Justice branch, alongside the Public Defender’s Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and residents and representatives of Maré’s Residents’ Associations and other NGOs won a Public Civil Action (ACP) that enforced a series of measures to reduce the risks and damages during recurrent armed confrontations caused by police operations. Mindful of the presence of armed drug organizations in Maré and to build a relationship with the Public Defender’s Office (in order to demand that the state address the harm it causes in favelas), Redes took the strategic decision to not position itself as a priori against police operations. The ACP, instead, demanded a protocol for police operations that respects Brazil’s 1988 Constitution. Legally, for instance, the police must announce the date and time of police operations, operations cannot take place at night, and emergency services such as ambulances must be present and available to residents during operations. Maré’s ACP is still provisional and has been disputed by different public organs. Nonetheless, subsequent Public Security Bulletins indicated a decrease from 41 to 16 police operations, and of 20 to 19 police murders in Maré between 2017 and 2018 (Redes da Maré, 2019c).

But this victory proved short-lived. Under President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s and Governor Witzel’s pro-militarization governments, rates of police violence skyrocketed throughout Rio in 2019, including in Maré, and the ACP was discontinued. In this alarming context, a coalition of different favela organizations initiated a procedure of Allegation of Noncompliance with a Fundamental Precept (ADPF) to ask Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) to review the legality of Rio’s wider public security policy. ADPFs seek to prevent or repair damage to fundamental Constitutional rights caused by an act or omission of the government. This ADPF, formally known as “ADPF 635” and popularly as “ADPF das Favelas,” determined that the state of Rio should prepare and submit a plan to reduce police lethality across their operations. These results were, once again, contradictory. Since the ADPF, the number of police operations in Rio has fallen, but they have become more deadly. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the police murdered 28 residents of the Jacarézinho favela in a single operation and 26 in Varginha, in 2021. Maré community organizers understand this increased violence as a form of retaliation against the ADPF. It certainly poses a renew challenge to favela-led anti-violence organizing.

Concluding Thoughts

Redes’ community-led approach to challenging policing practices in favelas must be understood within the multi-layered context of violence in Maré. For the NGO, the 1988 Constitution and the framework of citizenship have been constructive policy and discursive instruments in this fight. They help the organization challenge the normalization of state violence and neglect in favelas and offer concrete means to demand immediate and sustained changes. Nonetheless, these strategies are not straightforward. They remain embedded within the contradictions of a settler capitalist state that targets favelas as the “internal enemies” of its so-called War on Drugs. Redes understands the paradoxes within which it operates and the structural changes necessary for favela residents’ citizenship to become more than mere formalities. That is, the Brazilian state needs to fundamentally change to guarantee favela residents’ rights. And it is in this sense that, for Redes, another Maré and another Brazilian nation-state are possible.


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Gordon, LR., and Anna Gordon, JA (eds) (2006) Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.
Redes da Maré (2019a) Censo Populacional Da Maré. Available here (accessed 18 March 2024).
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Redes da Maré (2019c) Boletim Direito à Segurança Pública: Edição Especial. Available here (accessed 18 March 2024).
Ruge, E (2020) Black Lives Matter Protest Gathers Hundreds at Rio Governor’s Palace. RioOnWatch, 1 June, Available here (accessed 18 March 2024).

Desirée Poets is Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Theory at the Department of Political Science and a core faculty of the interdisciplinary ASPECT PhD program at Virginia Tech. Her scholarship addresses questions of development at the community and global levels through collaborative and civically engaged research with urban social movements, art collectives, and grassroots NGOs in Brazil, where she was born and raised.