Rio and the Criminalization of Poverty

by Alex Besser, Alix Vadot, Ava Rose Hoffman, Eli Nemzer, Nashwa Al-sharki, for Rio On Watch

The criminalization of poverty is a global phenomenon of mistreatment and prejudice faced by the poorest members of society due to their economic circumstances, often influenced by and perpetuating racism and other forms of discrimination. It can manifest itself in various forms, with common examples including excessive fines for petty offenses, laws and policies aimed at “cleansing the streets” of homeless people, arbitrary surveillance, unlawful arrests and, in its most sinister form, physical violence or murder. This article aims to outline the many forms in which low-income Brazilians have been, and continue to be, subjected to unjust treatment by the government, legal and penal systems, police, and mainstream media.

Historical background

In Brazil, the marginalization and criminalization of the poor has a foundation that dates back to the origins of the country itself. In its early history, the country’s economy heavily utilized slave labor, importing more slaves than any other country in the world—roughly ten times more than the United States. A small population of landowners—often lighter-skinned—amassed and consolidated large amounts of power and territory, creating a systematically entrenched gap between those who controlled the land and means of production and those who did not.

When the Portuguese court arrived in Brazil in 1808, enslaved people made up more than half of Rio’s population; concerns about rebellion against the minority elite led the Prince Regent Dom João to create the Military Division of the Royal Police Guard. RioOnWatch contributor Patrick Ashcroft writes that “essentially the Guard’s mandate was to subjugate and repress, protecting the dominant elite and quashing any potential uprising.” The very origins of today’sMilitary Police, then, were to uphold a social hierarchy and control the masses on the assumption that the poor were potential criminals, or at least threats to the status quo.

When Brazil finally outlawed slavery in 1888, meager efforts to integrate former slaves immediately thrust them into a position of disadvantage and poverty. Freed slaves and an influx of migrants from other parts of the country built homes where they could, in an absence of government-planned affordable housing, leading to the emergence of the city’s first favelas. As the nation modernized in the 20th century, a mix of government policies ranging from neglect to repression maintained the poor as a largely marginalized, excluded population.

This divergence between strata of Brazilian society expressed itself in public opinion towards the poor. Writings produced by “architects, social workers, and doctors that entered favelas in the early 1900s” described these communities as “backwards, unsanitary and oversexualized.”


Government discourse was no more nuanced. An 1888 National Congress speech referred to the “poor and vicious classes” and argued that “even when vice is not accompanied by crime,” poverty itself “constitutes a rightful reason of terror for the society.” Terror and disgust in discourse justifies policies in which poor people need to be relocated, policed and controlled, or even eliminated. This logic is evident from this statement from government documents dating to 1930:

“It is favelas, one of the diseases of Rio de Janeiro, in which it will be necessary, soon, to pass the burning iron. Their leprosy dirties the neighborhood of the beaches and the areas most graciously decorated by nature. Their destruction is important not only from the point of view of social order and security, but also from the point of view of general hygiene of the city, with no mention of aesthetics.”

Today, these same notions that poor communities are “dirty” places in an otherwise beautiful city, or that they are the source of security problems, is expressed in both the recent return to evictions policies and the continuation of militarized favela policing programs.

In recent decades, the growth of gang activity in favelas to supply domestic and international demands for drugs led to a societal linking of favelas with drugs and urban violence, even though academic estimates suggest less than 1% of favela residents are involved in drug trafficking. Instead of seeing violence in favelas as a result of systemic inequality, some people consider violence to be an inherent feature of the favelas themselves. Accordingly, favela residents earned reputations for being violent and dangerous, rather than victims of significant historical neglect by the state. Government policy in pursuing a “war on drugs” has been molded by these prejudices, for decades sustaining a reality in which the main presence of the state in favelas was through the Military Police.

Although the Constitution of 1988 promised reforms and benefits for poorer members of Brazilian society, the harsh policing of the military era continued with the pretext of combating gang activity. The “war on drugs” particularly threatens poor, black residents of favelas. Residents, no matter their involvement, remain at risk of being threatened, hurt, or killed, because of their presence in these territories. Many favela residents and observers argue police remain the main representative of the state even in favelas with Pacifying Police Units(UPPs), despite the program’s stated original intention to bring other services alongside security.

Criminalization of poverty today

Today, it seems that while wealthy, light-skinned Brazilians can be publicly drunk or rowdy, black and poor youth risk their lives by doing much less. On multiple occasions in recent summer months, poor, majority black youths who had not committed any crimes and were not carrying drugs or guns were detained on buses to the touristic South Zone of Rio as potential criminals. This effort, in theory aiming to reduce crime near the beaches of Copacabana andIpanema, has been condemned as illegal by judge Pedro Henrique Alves of the First Court of Childhood, Adolescence and Old Age, yet the practice of viewing low-income youth as guilty until proven innocent endures. The assumption of criminality also has an impact in job searches; employers are well known to look unfavorably on candidates with addresses in favelas. Such prejudice, of course, makes it harder for favela residents to find formal employment and further perpetuates stigmas and promotes crime.


Often excluded from public spaces frequented by the wealthy, some low-income youth have taken to social media to organize large gatherings in shopping malls dominated by the rich. These peaceful gatherings, which became popular in 2013 and 2014, are known as rolezinhos. Despite their non-violent nature, rolezinhos are often treated as a disruptive form of protest and have been prohibited in both the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. On a Sunday in January 2014, the upmarket Shopping Leblon mall closed its doors in anticipation of arolezinho planned to take place there on that day. After this incident, judge Isabella Peçanha Chagas mandated a R$10,000 fine for each participant in the rolezinho.

But banning rolezinhos is just a small part of the greater war on the poor. Human Rights Watch reports “police in the state of Rio de Janeiro have killed more than 8,000 people in the past decade, including at least 645 people in 2015. One fifth of all homicides in the city of Rio last year were police killings. Three quarters of those killed by police were black men.” A shockingly small number of officers responsible for these killings were prosecuted and among those who were, almost none ended up serving time, even in the worst of cases. For example, in the case of the Candelária massacre in 1993, in which nine suspects opened fire on homeless children sleeping on the steps of the historic Candelária church in Centro, killing eight of them and injuring dozens more, three officers were convicted and given lengthy sentences; however, none of them actually served their sentence. This atrocity is thought to have been motivated by a larger and enduring attempt to “clean the streets” of Rio, efforts that have re-emerged prior to hosting the World Cup and the Olympics.

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This article was written by Alex Besser, Alix Vadot, Ava Rose Hoffman, Eli Nemzer, Nashwa Al-sharki, and published on August 1, 2016 in *Highlight, by International Observers.