Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, & Public Security

By Enrique Desmond Arias; (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); 304 pages; $21.00. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro, Enrique Arias sets out to explore two related questions: why is there so much violence in Rio and what can be done to improve the situation?  In the favelas (shantytowns) surrounding Rio, Arias seeks to answer these questions by showing how the ongoing impacts of crime and violence are closely connected to the ways in which criminal gangs, state officials, and civic actors interact with each other in pursuit of shared goals.  Among these goals are the delivery of services to neighborhood residents and the pursuit of political support and legitimacy among both politicians and drug traffickers throughout the favelas.  The network structures utilized to achieve these broader goals enhance the ability of criminal actors to engage in ongoing illegal activities with minimal external opposition.  These networks have transformed state power at the local level in such a way that many government policies actually reinforce criminal activities.

Drugs and Democracy provides a conceptual framework for discussing problems of violence in developing societies.  In Chapter 1, Arias traces the political history of Rio’s favelas.  Chapter 2 then details the book’s theoretical contributions, examining the place of criminals in a changing society and the ways in which they interact with other political actors. It also analyzes possible ways to control the violence.  Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examine the main political organizations of the three favelas in which Arias conducted his research (Tubarao, Santa Ana, and Vigario Geral) to explain how criminal networking creates the conditions for organizing violence and disrupts democratic governance.  In Chapter 6, Arias provides a comparative analysis of other illegal networks in Latin America.  He concludes that an alternative form of networked organization between local state and civic actors dedicated to the reduction of violence in the favelas would help mitigate crime over the medium term.  To this end, the author calls for more micro-level research into the operations of criminal organizations and their impacts on state institutions and social groups to advance the search for solutions to social violence in the developing world.