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Security and violence in Rocinha – a favela in Rio de Janeiro

BRAZIL / Security in Rio Janeiro is about much more than police operations. It is about the people who live there, outsiders and how they live in a society where they are denied public services.


"We have more important things to talk about than guns and the police. It is inequality and lack of access to resources and opportunities that are our problems, since a pen kills more than a gun."

This was answered by a resident of one of Rio de Janeiro's favelas, Rocinha, when I asked what it was like to live in a district with violent clashes between different gangs and/or the city's police. For them it wasn't public safety (public security) which was the most important security topic, it was, however human security (human security) and daily violence (everyday violence).

I ask what he means by a stroke of the pen, and he elaborates: "We don't get water and sewage. It has been done with the stroke of a pen that we don't get this, by those in power who choose us away. They will never come to Rocinha and see for themselves!”

Urban warfare

Before I traveled to Rio in May 2022 to do field work for a master's thesis in international relations and security studies, I prepared myself for topics such as police violence and security
reforms in the city. Within this professional field, there are several approaches to investigating issues surrounding security and violence. Traditionally, the professional circle has been concerned with war between states, while the area of ​​impact has recently been extended to urban areas and people.

There is a lot of research on conflicts between the state, the military police and criminal drug gangs in Rio. And it is not without reason: the city is struggling with major challenges and a brutal military police, which conducts urban warfare. In 2019 alone, police in the city killed at least 1813 people, and over two-thirds of the victims had a skin color other than white.[1]

Those I interviewed, on the other hand, were mostly concerned with the daily threats and the choices they make to navigate everyday life.

Fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro

I live in Humaitá, which is one of the privileged neighborhoods in the southern zone of the city. Every day I cycle along the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a body of water in the southern zone of Rio, with tropical trees hanging over the cycle path. I take the subway from Leblon to Rocinha. There is only one stop.

Stepping onto the platform in Leblon, I leave what resembles an urban and tropical version of a west London borough. About ten minutes later I'm in Rocinha, and it feels like being in a completely different country, even a different part of the world.

Oddly enough, the underground stop is not called Rocinha, it is called São Conrado, a place only 100 meters from Rocinha. It is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Rio. It can almost seem as if someone wants Rocinha not officially exists on the underground map.

I take the escalator up, exit the station and am greeted by an enormous mountainside, with many different houses connected wall to wall on one side, and apartment blocks on the other. The sun is baking. It is a hot late summer day in May with 32 degrees Celsius. I walk through a small market where everything from mobile phones, bags, shoes and clothes to food is sold. In the main street, Via Ápia, there are also banks, restaurants, bars and cafes.

In Rochinha, it's easiest to just nod to a taxi driver on a motorcycle to get a ride. I make contact, jump in the back and am driven up a narrow road with people walking in all directions. Included cars and trucks come driving down with little clearance, and the taxi drivers zigzag between them all. And for some reason they are very busy.

Several of the project participants emphasize the state's absence. The lack of adequate public services, such as basic sanitation, gives them greater security challenges than confrontations between the police and neighborhood gangs. This is decided by a pen (people in power) who may never have been to Rocinha. Other activists have invited municipal authorities and state authorities to visit, but must conclude that they will not come. Therefore, it is experienced as an absence of the state and services to which they are entitled – formally speaking, this is an area with a legal existence where the residents are citizens of the same city as people in other neighbourhoods. But it is not equality before the law.

Survival techniques

Inside Rocinha, most of the project participants navigate only in the main and well-known streets because (alley) since the favela is huge, with somewhere between 100-
250 inhabitants, divided into 000 quarters.

Although it happens less often in Rocinha than in many other Brazilian favelas, in the fall of 2017 one of the participants used to go to university at six in the morning to avoid police operations. Another participant, a young man, said he had to avoid the police associating him with gang members. He therefore made excuses as to why he could not give them a ride on his own motorbike.

Outside of Rocinha, other participants said that at the workplace or university they avoided saying they lived there because they feared stigmatisation. They expressed concern about poorer pay and a lower chance of promotion in the ranks and stated that they had a postal address in a different, lower middle-class area. For another participant, this was not a problem, as everyone at his job came from "shit areas", as he himself called it, before correcting the wording.

Brazilian Public Security Forum. Brazilian Public Security Yearbook. (2019).

Rodrigues, M. and H. Coelho. "Pretos E Pardos São 78% Dos Mortos Em Ações Policiais No Rj Em 2019: 'É O Negro Que Sofre Essa Insegurança', Diz Mãe De Ágatha." Globo, June 6, 2019.

Wibben, ATR Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach. Routledge, 2011.


[1]   Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, 2019; Rodrigues & Coelho, 2019.


Tore Øvstebø Næss
Tore Øvstebø Næss
Næss is the recipient of Habitat Norway's master's scholarship in urbanism 2021.

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