Voices of Resistance: Non-Violent Trajectories of Young and Adult Men in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Gary Barker, with Alice Taylor, Tatiana Moura, Promundo

Prepared for the February 18 – 19, 2016 seminar, Transforming Violent Masculinities, organized by the winners of the 2015-2016 WPF Student Seminar Competition. 

Rio de Janeiro, along with other Latin American cities, are in the top of global rankings of cities facing high rates of chronic urban violence, of which men are the main perpetrators as the vast majority of homicide victims. Dominant, hyper-masculine or masculinist norms that uphold violence represent a shared characteristic of state-sanctioned and criminal groups in Brazil – including drug trafficking gangs,[i] militia (mostly comprised of off-duty police) and police forces. Understanding that these hyper-masculine norms are constructed during the socialization of boys, and continue to be reinforced as men are exposed to groups that use armed violence can offer insightful strategies to reducing urban violence. This article presents findings from two studies carried out Promundo starting in 1999. Promundo is a Brazilian-based NGO, which now works in more than 20 countries, that carries out applied research, program development and advocacy related to gender equality and violence prevention.

Some Background on Rio de Janeiro, and Violent Masculinities

Between 1980 and 2010, more than one million people were murdered in Brazil. The vast majority of the victims were young, low income black men. As a result of these persistently high male homicide rates, there are currently 4 million more women than men in Brazil. This high rate of homicide continues despite the fact that life has improved in many ways for the poorest segment of the population. Brazil has seen an impressive reduction of social inequality and an improvement of social indicators in the last fifteen years. The low income population in Brazil has more money in their pockets and their children have more access to education and health. But these important achievements have had little effect on reducing homicide.

There are 56.4 homicides for every 100,000 people in Brazil (according to 2010 data). This translates into about 43,000 deaths by homicide a year and the seventh highest homicide rate in the world. While homicide rates have been declining in Brazil, the gap between the homicide rates for black men and white men has increased. Many of the young men who are murdered or murder in Brazil are connected to drug trafficking gangs; others are members of the police. Most of these homicides occur in urban areas, where the drug trade emerged as a response to limited employment and limited presence of the state, and where there is easy access to firearms. It is also related to patterns of conflict resolution based on competition for reputation, for recognition and honor, for prestige among female partners and from near daily exposure to violence by police, by armed militias, by gangs and in the media. Armed violence, and carrying of weapons has become in some ways normal, and a way to feel like men for young men who otherwise feel excluded from Brazil’s economic boom times.

Gangs compete with and clash with violent police and armed militias – and all of them use weapons and force to live up to notions of hyper-masculinity. And they thrive in an environment in which the state has shown a chronic inability to acknowledge the problem for what it is, much less deal with it. In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, in an attempt to reduce gang violence, the government implemented the so-called Pacifying Police Units (UPP) in 2008, a program that permanent located military police units in low income areas (favelas) that have historically been dominated by drug-dealing gangs and community militias (mostly made up of former police or off-duty police) who fight against them. From 2010-2015, 36 UPPs have been inaugurated in Rio. While they have made significant progress in reducing the reach and power of drug gangs, they are also abusive of community residents, and frequently violent.

Brazil’s military police (the state police that still operate within a military logic of enemies and insurgents rather than a logic of public safety) is one of the most violent and lethal police forces worldwide.  In 2007 police killed 1,330 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. As a comparison, in that same year, police forces in all of the United States (hardly a model of restraint in the use of lethal force against young men of color) committed 391 “justifiable killings.”

As another indication of the face of masculinity in favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Promundo recently conducted a study in several favelas in Rio de Janeiro asked children ages 4-11 about their perceptions of security and safety in their communities. Across age groups, the children reported that they were scared of men in their communities; they ranked the police as the most frightening of men, followed by men involved in gangs, and lastly by men in general.

Promundo’s Research on Pathways to Non-Violent Masculinity

In this context, in 1999-2000, we carried out the first of two studies on young men and non-violent pathways to manhood. This first study (published as Dying to be Men: Youth, Marginalization and Masculinity, Routledge, 2005) involved a comparison group of African-American young men in Chicago. In total, the study included more than 30 young men followed over the course of more than a year and interviewed in at least two moments; a significant family member or friend of each of the young men were also interviewed.   The young men were chosen because they had numerous risk factors associated with being in gangs, had family members or peers in gangs. Qualitative analysis focused on identifying coping strategies or factors that seemed to contribute to their staying out of gang-related violence and activity.

The young men not involved in gangs who were interviewed by the author in Chicago and Rio de Janeiro showed a variety of similar characteristics that seemed to explain how they stayed out of gangs and comandos, including: (a) having a valued, stable relationship with a parent, a grandparent, or a female partner (or multiple relationships) who would be disappointed if the young man became involved with gangs; (b) having access to alternative identities or some other sense of self that was positively valued by the young man and by those in his social setting, particularly the male peer group (for example, being a good student, athlete, or musician or having a good job);(c) being able to reflect on the risks and costs associated with the violent version of masculinity promoted by gang members; and (d) finding an alternative male peer group that provided positive reinforcement for non-gang male identities (Barker 1998b, 2000b, 2001).

Other researchers working in Brazil have identified similar factors. One study comparing young men in Rio de Janeiro who were juvenile offenders with their non-offending siblings identified a number of protective factors that worked in favor of the nondelinquent young men (Assis 1999). The non-offending siblings: (a) showed more optimism toward their life settings; (b) were more verbally expressive; (c) were either the first-born or youngest siblings in the family; (d) had calmer temperaments; and (e) reported stronger affective connections with parents and/or teachers.

For young men in Chicago and Rio de Janeiro who had been involved in a comando or gangs and gotten out, a number of factors seem to have made it possible for them to leave. These included fear, becoming a father and assuming a relationship with the child and child’s mother, moving out of the neighborhood or community, or becoming a member of an evangelical church (Barker 1998b, 2001). Other research in the United States uncovers similar patterns. When young men in low-income and violent settings find conventional means to attain identity and status—finishing school; acquiring legal, stable, and reasonably well-paid employ- ment; having family members they can connect to; having non-delinquent peers; forming their own family—most young men stay out of gangs and other delinquent behaviors.

Our second study was carried out in 2014-2015 with support from the International Development Research Centre’s (IDRC) Safe and Inclusive Cities Programme.

The research included key informant interviews with experts in urban violence, public security, gender and violence, and programs designed for leaving trafficking or ending IPV. In-depth life history interviews were conducted with a focus on trajectories toward abandoning or lessening the use of violence, or involvement in an armed group. Recognizing these as complex phenomena, several groups were created for the fieldwork sample as described in the table below.[ii]


These in-depth life history interviews sought to understand experiences during childhood and adolescence and other forms of socialization, as well as how gender norms influence constructions of violent or non-violent masculinities. There was a focus on which factors enable men – surrounded by high exposure to violence and forms of inequality – to abandon or lessen their use of violence, or adopt non-violent attitudes and behaviors in complex urban settings.

In terms of trajectories into gang-related violence, young men most often entered traffic for financial reasons, and in many cases, described the proximity of traffic ‘in front of their doorstep.’ Joining gangs usually entailed an invitation by someone involved, who began fostering a relationship with the man or woman, and small jobs (i.e., running drugs). In contrast to gangs in Central America and other parts of the world, men enter and leave drug trafficking multiple times in Rio de Janeiro. Leaving is attainable, and easier the lower the position. Younger men who participated in trafficking and those who remained as runners and sellers (rather than as chefes or in a higher rank), all spoke of entering and leaving an average of three or four times. The processes of transformation to non-violence, is thus far from linear.

The velha guarda former traffickers (those who were older, and tended to have spent more years in traffic and prison) discussed how the nature of traffic has shifted over the years; namely, that there is less solidarity, or internal protection of one another and more violence (internally, with other gangs and with the police and militias). During fieldwork, a photographer described hearing residents complain about the aftermath of many drug lords’ imprisonment in Maré (a community from which several former traffickers were interviewed, which experienced a major army occupation prior of the time of the fieldwork). Whereas the chefes tended to maintain order as to avoid drawing attention, the younger men remaining are described as being more violent and reckless and therefore disrupt order set by the velha guarda. The arrival of the UPPs (or previously, the army to ‘prepare the terrain’ in the case of Maré) has had differing effects in each community in which it was implemented. Typically, traffic continues but to a weaker and less visible degree.

The entering and leaving phenomenon itself generated a constant flux between protection and vulnerability. When leaving, young men had to pay any ‘outstanding debts’ (to the chefe), “in order to avoid being vulnerable” as one former trafficker described it. For all, getting a job was more difficult with each re-entry into the formal job market especially after long absences or with a criminal record (in which other skills or education were absent). As a testament to the challenge of leaving, the NGO program from which we interviewed several former traffickers, mentioned that a few already returned, even if to a lesser degree, from the beginning to middle of field research.

The temptations or pull factors to return to traffic are many, and they are very real given settings of insecurity and inequality: traffickers themselves did not talk much of wanting to return, but several wives mentioned their husbands still considered it. One NGO with a reintegration program from which we interviewed several men had already lost a few men back to traffic in the months following interviews. The money is far greater than any minimum wage job could offer, and the power-related benefits and status are not easy to substitute. As for activists, they make little money and their work can put them at risk. For the police, leaving the job altogether, or creating more peaceful change toward non-violent forms of mediation are met with resistance within police forces.

As in the case of the first the analysis of the transcripts focused on identifying factors that seemed to explain resistance to violence. These included, in the case of men who became activists, mobility (out of favelas) and exposure to alternative non-violent masculinities. For many men in all the categories we could frequently see replacing intergenerational transfers of violence with caregiving. Others showed active anger reduction strategies and could identify those strategies, which including ways of avoiding bringing violence from the street into the home. Women and men police discussed ways they ‘cooled down’ after an especially stressful day.

For nearly all the men we could see signs of redefining manhood along non-violent line. The research showed that a trajectory out of violence can also offer the possibility to adjust other gender norms toward greater equity, as seen in the examples with men becoming fathers and/or starting to participate more in caregiving and household tasks upon leaving trafficking. In addition to taking on greater caregiving roles following after leaving traffic, men also described wanting to leave to alleviate the worry of a family member and thus ameliorate the relationship with a family member who they had placed at a distance or treated poorly during involvement in traffic. The tendency especially for younger and less experienced drug traffickers to enter and leave factions multiple times, offers policy implications with regard to capitalizing moments in which traffickers leave. 

Program Implications

Globally, a handful of programs and research have begun to address resistance and non-violent pathways of men. Work involving men in complementing women, peace and security agendas has made headway in recent years (Vess et al., 2013). An example of this work is the Living Peace groups, created by Promundo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The purpose of these groups is to encourage men to overcome psychosocial trauma and to support men’s abilities to sustain peace violence in conflict-affected settings through educational groups and campaigns. Research on positive deviance by Promundo has also explored ways in which young men can and have questioned and countered harmful prevailing norms that can contribute to violent behavior. While delinquency and gun ownership may provide a sense of power, there are also numerous other factors that serve to counter men’s participation in gang or other delinquent activity (Barker, 1998, 2005; Barker and Ricardo, 2006).

The underlying assumption around public security policy in Rio de Janeiro is that increasing the police force will reduce urban violence. As such, the majority of financial and political resources are dedicated to the police, with more intermittent programming otherwise, including with prevention. Challenges continue to persist in transforming the police force (i.e., slowness in moving away from militarized tactics that favor the excessive use of force, and in ending practices of corruption, torture and lack of routine investigations). Without a doubt, efforts to reform the city’s police force are still needed. Incentives need to be given to men and women police, like many of the ones interviewed, to value and integrate, in a serious way, methods of conflict resolution and non-violence, and appropriate uses of force in order to counter the persisting militarized, masculinist war ethos.

A public security model has much to gain by considering the vulnerabilities, social conditions, and existing non-violent trajectories that could be leveraged. Developing more inclusive and comprehensive security models calls for addressing the under-acknowledged, and yet preventable hyper-masculine norms that uphold violence. Clearly, these vulnerabilities are also exacerbated when favelas remain isolated from better security models as well as better education, health and employment opportunities. Critically, former traffickers, police, and their spouses and family members who live in scenarios of urban violence develop remarkable strategies to overcome vulnerabilities and to develop non-violent trajectories. The strategies described here should be considered in the design of programs and policies. The trajectories of these women and men provide a wealth of knowledge for promoting non-violence.


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[i] The drug trade in Rio de Janeiro is dominated by three major factions: Comando Vermelho (CV), Terceiro Comando (TC), and Amigos dos Amigos (AA) that trade primarily marijuana, cocaine and crack (this varies by the territory).

[ii] This qualitative research is also complemented by a quantitative household survey that will examine how exposure to violence influences men’s and women’s attitudes, experiences and self-reported behaviors with regard to masculinities, violence, and gender equality measures.

[iii] Communities and neighborhoods represented in the greater metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro include Alemão Complex, Andarai, Caju, Catumbi, Cerro Cora, Formiga, Madureira, Maré Complex (from different factions/ favelas within), Mesquita, Nova América, Rocinha, Santa Marta, and Vidigal. They include a mixture of sizes, UPP and non-UPP communities, and geographic locations and distance from the center of the city.

[iv] We also interviewed one former member of a militia group. Because of security concerns and the difficulty identifying ‘former’ militia, we did not conduct further interviews.

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