This paper discusses different valuation regimes of houses in an informal real estate market in a militia area in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We understand valuation regimes as forms of evaluating goods that take into account moralities, principles of justice, and monetary calculation (Villarreal 2014). In our case study, houses are the goods in question. We pay particular attention to the negotiations and conflicts among state agents, the militia, and residents over the value of houses during the removal process of a favela in the city’s western zone. The announcement of the construction of a highway created a period of uncertainty. Community leaders and residents did not know if or when the works would remove their houses. Expectations of losing houses, businesses, and modes of living stimulated multiple strategies to take hold of this process. We argue that this critical situation has made visible some economic dynamics and political relations that constitute ‘militia urbanisms’ (Benmergui & Gonçalves 2019), new modes of production of urban peripheries that have spread through Rio de Janeiro in the last decade (Geni & Observatório das Metrópoles 2021).
Militias are a phenomenon whose specificities and historicity are an object of considerable discussion. According to sociologists Ignacio Cano and Thais Duarte (2012), there are five remarkable characteristics of militias: territorial control; coercion of residents and business owners; a drive for profit; a discourse of fighting the violence perpetrated by drug dealers; and political control exerted by military and civil police, firefighters, and penitentiary agents. In brief, the militias involve groups of public security agents who illegally privatize the offer of protection (Misse 2008).
In a certain sense, militias are nothing new. In the 1950s, when Rio de Janeiro was still the federal district,1 the local police created the Grupo de Diligências Especiais (Special Diligence Group), popularly known as the death squad responsible for countless illegal assassinations of common criminals (Misse 1999). In 1967, the civil-military dictatorship (1964–1985) created the military police, an institution responsible for both patrolling the streets and political repression. During the democratization process, the strong lobby of military agents and institutions, afraid of punishments for crimes committed during the authoritarian regime, guaranteed a new mission for the military police in the new constitutional order: the provision of public safety (Ribeiro & Montandon 2015).
Coincidently, the late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a reorganization of urban criminality (Machado da Silva 2010). From the inside of prisons, common criminals joined together in what later became known as facções do tráfico (drug gangs) and began to consolidate points for drug sales in favelas, known as bocas de fumo, to make their criminal activities more lucrative and thus gain the power to negotiate better living conditions inside prisons. As sociologist Michel Misse (1999) has shown, the military police played a decisive role in the organization of the political economy of crime in Rio’s favelas, selling weapons and charging for arrego or turning a blind eye to the illicit activities in place.
Countless studies of national importance (Grillo 2013; Menezes 2015; Misse 1999) offer detailed descriptions of public safety policies’ modes of operation and contradictions in recent decades. The war on drugs is the most known side of the story of militarized urbanism (Graham 2011) in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian metropolises. Since the 1980s, Rio de Janeiro and the Baixada Fluminense region residents live with a generalized fear of shootings and bandidos (criminals). Buildings became fortified enclaves (Caldeira 2001) patrolled by security companies, many of which hire police officers in informal labor relations (Cubas 2002).
In 2008, the safety problem in Rio de Janeiro gained more shades of gray. After the torture and assassination of journalists from a local newspaper, O Dia, in the favela of Batan in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro, the activities of paramilitary groups gained attention. Then state deputy Marcelo Freixo (in the Party of Socialism and Liberty at the time and now in the Brazilian Socialist Party) opened a Parliamentary Investigative Commission in the state Legislative Assembly to look into the crimes and investigate the illegal forms of action of police officers, firefighters, and correctional agents in urban peripheries.
Since then, scholarship has tried to understand how power relations extend beyond police stations, fire departments, and military battalions toward low-income communities. It strikes the rapidness with which militias erupted as a public problem in 2008 and the extension of their power 15 years later. Arquivos Grupo de Estudos dos Novos Ilegalismos (GENI)’s (2021) last report shows that more than half of Rio de Janeiro’s territory lies under militia control. Multiple social processes conjoin to explain this. Some studies suggest that the practices of the death squads and matadores (paid murderers) preceded the militias’ domination (Araujo 2017a; Werneck 2015; Zaluar & Conceição 2007). Others show that the war on drugs played an essential role in converting police expertise into political commodities (Misse 1999) in the political economy of crime (Alves 2008). In its turn, the spread of a fear ideology led families to ‘run away from urban violence’ in search of tranquility in militia areas (Araujo 2017a).
As discussed elsewhere, housing has played an unexpected role in expanding militias’ tentacles (Araujo 2019). As Müller (2021a) points out, analysis of the material culture of houses offers an insightful understanding of safety designs and protection engagements. This paper hopes to contribute to this discussion by raising this question: how does the militias’ control of resident associations affect access to land, housing, and urban infrastructure? To answer this question, this paper explores the conflicts around the value of houses during one removal process in a militia area.
Scholarship on drug dealing has already raised safety and ethical questions in studying the crime world (Goffman 2015; Grillo 2013). Studying militias is no different. Thus, this paper’s authors thought of two strategies to tackle these issues. First, this article draws on two long-term studies. Between 2012 and 2016, we both conducted fieldwork in the same community but worked with different social actors. During this period, many urban policies intervened in the favela and its surroundings: urban infrastructure programs, social diagnostics conducted for public works, and highway construction. As a consultant for urban policies, Marcella Araujo had the opportunity to interview community leaders, milicianos, and members of resident associations. They saw her working ‘on behalf of the State’ and told their life stories and political stances, aware of publication purposes. Daniela Petti participated in mobilizations that claimed the residents’ right to the city. This paper is an effort to weave together ethnographies happening simultaneously at the same place. It is important to emphasize that all the names mentioned are fictitious for both privacy and safety.
The second strategy was to consider the removal process as a critical situation that revealed the dynamics of informal real estate markets (Araujo 2016). As said before, many urban interventions resulted in evictions. As we describe in greater detail below, removal processes are often publicly announced without clarifying their purposes, whether for the reappropriation of land ownership, for the relocation of residents living in areas of risk,2 or for other broader public interests. As Müller (2021b) suggests, residents ‘dwelling in limbo’ are exposed to multiple vulnerabilities and uncertainties that arise during an urban intervention, forcing them to navigate the threats strategically. During the removal, being in the field allowed us to hear residents’ strategies to fight against evictions, negotiate home prices, maximize benefits, and circumvent loss.
A decisive moment of a removal process is the proposal of an indemnification agreement. Brazilian housing policies involve three modalities of compensation for families removed from their homes: monetary compensation, based on a table of prices set by government agencies; compra assistida, or assisted purchasing, in which state agents intermediate the purchase of another property of the same price; or the exchange of a house for a unit in a social housing complex—regardless of the house price in the market. Conflicts over monetary equivalences abound. State agents and residents dispute the criteria used for evaluating construction quality and setting the prices.
The removal announcement unfolded a time of espera (waiting). It is not completely surprising that community leaders and residents speak of espera, given that this is a recurring experience in the relationship between low-income families and the State (Auyero 2011) and has gained increasing ethnographic attention (Janeja & Bandak 2019). The most exciting concern is the polysemy of the word. In Portuguese, esperar can mean both to wait and to hope.
At the core of evaluations, residents converted the tears and sweat of past struggles to build houses into projects of improving in life. Some wanted to postpone house transactions, but others were eager to do it as fast as possible. These conflicting perceptions of time lay in the divergent calculations of fair trade. As we argue, the removal process compressed time. Waiting is an active form of time (Han 2011). Opposite to holding still, residents and community leaders reflected on which compensation was better and how to make a living after the eviction (L’Étoile 2014; Narotzky & Besnier 2014). They had to navigate the murky waters of limited knowledge and the hope for better lives. Imagining futures helped them contemplate different courses of action (Bryant & Knight 2019; Crapanzano 2005, 2006; Han & Antrosio 2020; Lear 2006; Lempert 2018; Miyazaki 2004; Visacovsky 2019). The ethnographic present thus arises as a temporal realm for building bridges between past experiences and imaginations opened toward the future.
Esperando (hoping) for imagined outcomes, residents engaged in struggles and broke the espera (waiting). In so doing, the community split in two. On the one side, the padrinho (the local miliciano) organized a political arena to discuss the impacts of highway construction on the real estate market. On the other, the Movimento Independente Popular (People’s Independent Movement) organized a different arena to defend residents’ right to housing and to fight against the removal. In these two arenas, the moral, economic, and political values of houses became evident: as accomplishments of past struggles, as social rights, as projects for the future, as commodities in real estate and the security market. The analysis of moral contestations, economic calculation, and political alliances allowed us to understand different modes of production of houses and the militia’s regulation of real estate markets.
The article has three sections: First, we describe the project to construct the highway infrastructure that caused the removal of thousands of families along its path. We discuss how community leaders value the effects of the construction over their territorialized networks of power. Then, we present the strategies for resistance and negotiation of compensation for different residents. These sections pay particular attention to how the espera stimulated different house valuation regimes. Finally, we discuss how these active engagements allow us to understand the logic and scales of self-construction, on the one hand, and militia urbanism, on the other.
On 13 January 2012, flying over by helicopter, Secretary of Public Works Eduardo Fagundes officially announced the new 26-km highway’s path. On-screen, yellow and blue lines indicated that the highway would pass over hundreds of houses. It promised to shorten the neighborhoods’ distances and provide bus-rapid-transit stations to speed circulation across the city. However, residents of a small favela in the western zone worried whether these benefits would come for them or if they had to make room for progress to come. ‘You cannot fight progress,’ Dona Solange, the first president of the residents’ association, told us on the day of our first interview in 2015, referring to the construction of a highway that would pass over the community she had lived in for more than 30 years.
The first removal rumors began when construction started at the far opposite end of the highway in mid-2012. At that time, the Bairro Maravilha municipal program was paving the streets, and the Morar Carioca3 urbanization project was planning investments in urban infrastructure in the favela. Residents could not wrap their minds around the fact that the municipality was spending money on public works and might spend even more money to evict families.
At the beginning of 2013, the municipality began a series of dispossessions. House and shop prices were frozen in the market, meaning they could not be renovated, sold, or rented. State agents circulated with clipboards, marking the façades of houses, which triggered a series of questions about the criteria for registration. Would the municipality remove the marked houses? Where would the families go? How would they be compensated? Countless negotiations involved the Secretariat of Public Works, the regional administration for Barra da Tijuca, the consortium of builders, resident associations, churches, and research institutes.
Between 2014 and 2015, constructors upheld the work a few times. During one of the suspensions at the worksite, the city hall called a public hearing with the Forum of Associations, an entity including resident and commercial associations with various and sometimes contradictory demands. After community leaders and residents intensely criticized and booed off a legislator at the hearing, the project managers decided to contract a social diagnostic of the impact of the highway construction on neighboring communities. The concern of the consortium’s social worker was to ‘bring the [highway] brand to the locations.’ She thought that the residents were not differentiating the highway benefits from the impacts of the other urban programs taking place in the region at the same time. The social worker imagined that professionalizing courses and artwork on the highway pillars could soothe residents’ intense emotions. In her view, the asphalt and the construction projects would bring progress to the area.
Progress is a concept of linear time, in which the alignment of past, present, and future points towards improvement. Community leaders weighed the pros and cons of the construction and evaluated the promised progress. The president of the association from the Vale district said he ‘supported progress, but no progress for the sake of progress,’ that is, promises that do not address residents’ main concerns. The Parque district’s association president said, ‘I like progress. If not, I would live in the forest. I am an urban person.’ These statements are not circumstantial. They vocalize the dichotomy between progress and roça (a rural environment) or progress and mato (forest), shared in the local worldview (Araujo 2017a; Cortado 2018). However, those leaders demanded the right to engage in urban planning and disputed ‘the politics and poetics’ (Larkin 2013) of public works. They knew the consortium would invest massive amounts of money to build the highway and mitigate its negative impacts. Furthermore, they claimed active participation in deciding how progress would improve families’ lives and shape the landscape.
Among neighbors and community leaders, the removal announcement was controversial. The highway construction would remove hundreds of families who lived under the rule of a man known as the padrinho (godfather), accused of illegal activities in the Parliamentary Investigative Commission’s 2008 report mentioned in the introduction.4
In our interviews, we soon found that residents shared ambitions for improvement in their lives but disagreed about whether the highway would pave the way toward a better life. On her ‘little piece of land,’ for over 30 years, Dona Solange and her husband built a casa de alvenaria (a concrete house) where they still lived. Because her backyard was along a stream, where sewage flowed from the community, her house had been marked for removal a few years prior. From the moment when the municipality began to promote the highway route, various other houses in the community, many of them far from the smelly stream, were marked as well. Residents got confused about the reasons for the removal. When Dona Solange learned that she might be evicted, she and other residents ‘surveyed the market’ in the surrounding neighborhood to estimate how much their houses were worth. However, state agents offered buyouts below market prices. Brazilian law distinguishes between the occupation of land, known as a posse (possession), and ownership. In most urban low-income settlements, families have a posse of their land, which means they can live on the land but not make transactions. Dona Solange could not be more disappointed. Her house was evaluated only for its construction qualities: the type of roof, the internal and external finish, and the number of bathrooms. ‘A piece of land is everything. An apartment is not enough,’ she told us, highlighting the importance of a backyard for growing orchards and animals, conducting commercial activities and crafts, and mainly for building puxadinhos (tiny houses) lent, sold, or rented to relatives and neighbors. In her view, the sweat and tears to build her house were worth more than the compensation the municipality offered or the exchange for an apartment in a Minha Casa Minha Vida (MCMV)5 housing project. Sweat is a metonymy for the hard work involved in the self-construction of houses (Holston 1991), this long-lasting and widespread mode of production of housing in Brazil. As families work in their free time and weekends, spending limited funds on materials, it takes years to self-build a house. Dona Solange and her husband understood it would be better to stay in the community and fight against removal.
The same rationale led her to another conclusion regarding what her son should do to face the eviction. Her son was a young single man who paid rent for a quitinete (a small one-bedroom unit) in a building next to her house. When he knew the community was under threat of removal, he got a loan from his mother to buy the tiny apartment as an investment. He sought to exchange it for an apartment with a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms in the MCMV condominium that his mother disliked. For him, it was not worth waiting, and the sooner he filled the papers for an exchange, the better his chances of getting a well-located apartment in the housing project.
The comparison of apartment sizes and the number of bedrooms matters, but the evaluations of houses consider more than architectural criteria. The cases of Dona Solange and her son show that economic calculations involve prospecting futures and weighing the past. Aspirations guide actions in the present and resurface memories that support the sense of making life better. With this in mind, we can understand why promises of progress might not coincide with residents’ expectations for life improvements.
Another person who weighed whether to stay or move was the residents’ association president, Vilma. In her official role as a community leader, she was against the removal, echoing the padrinho’s position. He was furious with the possibility of losing territory under his control. All residents paid weekly association fees, and businesses also paid security fees.6 If the community was evicted, the padrinho would lose money. However, Vilma’s interests conflicted with her political stand at the time. She had been recently divorced and lived with her two teenage sons in her mother’s house. To move to an apartment in a low-income condominium would be, as it was for Dona Solange’s son, an opportunity to improve her life.
The highway construction and the following threat of removal would collapse the padrinho’s prominent security and real estate businesses, so he contacted many politicians and bureaucrats. He organized local meetings with Dona Solange, Vilma, and other trusted residents. In this sense, the padrinho created his political arena to negotiate how the removals could improve his business and political network. After much negotiation, his political sway guaranteed a proper solution. Families would be removed to a housing complex a few kilometers away from the community, and the padrinho would win the privilege to nominate the building administrator. Vilma played a central role in this political arrangement. She moved to an apartment in the housing complex. Once in the new apartment, Vilma was put in charge of condominium administration and collected security fees for the padrinho. It was a masterly arrangement: hundreds of families came to live under the padrinho’s rule. In the end, the removal process was an opportunity to expand his economic and political profits.
Memories of struggle and aspirations for improvement also emerged in the social movement meetings. In 2013, some community residents formed the Movimento Independente Popular (MIP), the Peoples’ Independent Movement. The group gathered residents against any form of eviction and denounced rights violations committed by the municipality. The MIP had big allies in civil society, such as the Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas,7 a grassroots committee dedicated to denouncing the impacts of mega sporting events on poor populations. The MIP organized regular local meetings, demonstrations, and political activities in the community, which had support from left-wing politicians and activists.
Some of the MIP’s meetings drew 140 residents angry about the lack of clear information about the impacts of the highway construction.8 Compensation was one of the main topics debated at the meetings. Residents were anxious and complained of the low value of the indemnifications offered. To weaken the MIP, agents of the city negotiated individually, a tactic that activists saw as an effort to pressure the families and weaken collective action.
Dona Raimunda, an older woman, was offered R$32,000.00 for her house. She recalled the struggle she endured over decades to build her house, ‘one-month saving money and the next paying the builder.’ In a meeting, she emphasized that she did not want to move from the community because her neighbors and family lived there and provided her with daily care. She also felt it was unfair to exchange her house 90 square meter house for a half-sized PMCMV apartment.
Vicente, who built four 60 square meter houses on his lot, was another resident dissatisfied with the indemnification offer. Vicente recalled how he and his family struggled to build their houses. Soon after the construction of the first house, his oldest daughter’s marriage led the family to build a puxadinho (a small house just alongside), where she could live with her husband and future children. Later, his other daughter also got married, which led to constructing a second puxadinho above the first one. When Vicente and his wife decided to build a clothing workshop, they built a fourth house above their daughters’. Vicente and his family bought the land in the favela in 1992, but they only finished the basic structure of the fourth house eight years later. Those were long years of self-construction. The city government offered R$140,000.00 for the four houses in the removal process. Vicente said that this sum was not equivalent to all the sweat his family had shed during the construction and would not be enough to buy new homes for his family.
The MIP meetings served as arenas to problematize the impacts of the works differently. If the padrinho worried that the removal would shrink the number of houses and businesses under his control, the MIP criticized the compensation and disrespect to the inhabitants’ right to the city.
In late 2014, after much struggle, the community resistance led to a revision of the plans for the highway, whose new path would reduce the number of demolitions by 80%. However, in 2015, the official government journal, the Diário Oficial, reported the demolition of 304 properties, despite the previous agreement between the municipality and the community. The highway construction took place between 2015 and 2016, cutting through streets, cracking walls, and casting large shadows over the community. None of the leaders gathered around the padrinho were evicted. But some resistance leaders moved to other locations and silenced their claims because, as they said in private conversations, the local militia had threatened them.
As we can see, conflicts around houses’ trade values found two arenas for negotiation. The padrinho regarded the problem as a business matter; whereas, the MIP regarded it as the right to the city. On both sides, residents and community leaders made economic calculations to establish what was a fair trade. Their opposition, however, lay on the moral boundaries between struggle and exploitation.
Here again, Dona Solange’s and Vicente’s stories are insightful. In the 1980s, Dona Solange took part in a land occupation led by the padrinho, then a police officer in exercise. He grabbed and divided a vacant lot closer to his house in the west zone, drew the map of lots, and charged fees for access to land. Dona Solange was nominated the president of the new community.
Thirty years later, the shutdown of an automobile sales outlet had left a vacant lot in proximity to the favela. The padrinho organized another land occupation, and dozens of families participated, hoping to gain a piece of land of their own, as Dona Solange once did. The padrinho got part of the land for the association, built various quitinetes to rent, and then founded a new association with a trusted resident. Vicente thought of taking part in the land occupation, but he refrained. For him and many others, the fees charged by the residents’ association are exploitative. The militia makes profits from families’ struggle for a place to live.
The problem is not building and trading houses. After the removal announcement, for instance, Vicente flew from the community and began to build a house elsewhere. He left one of his four houses empty for a short period. When he knew a neighbor had mysteriously disappeared and his wife was evicted from her house by the militia, Vicente quickly sought a tenant and paid the transaction fee to the residents’ association. Today, Vicente rents two of his four houses for R$700.00 (U$240.00) each and is looking for new tenants for the other two. These economic practices are common in urban peripheries’ vibrant informal real estate markets. Like Vicente, various residents also rent and sell their self-built houses, puxadinhos, and quitinetes. At the core of the distinction between the struggle for self-construction and militia exploitation are the logics and scale of production and commercialization (Benmergui & Gonçalves 2019) and the mode of regulation of real estate markets.
Self-construction stretches in time. Families gather on weekends and during any free time from paid work to progressively build their houses. The work is always in progress and, as residents commonly say, ‘it never ends. As families grow, houses continuously expand (Araujo 2017; Motta 2014). Rental and sales are monetized economic transactions anchored in shared moralities. A family may lend a house to help a relative, but a landlord will charge his tenant monthly, sometimes relying on registered contracts.
On the other hand, the temporality of real estate exploitation is accelerated and intensive. Land occupations and each step of the process of housing construction create opportunities to make money and charge fees. The occupation, the construction, the sale, and the rental are charged. People like Vicente feel their struggle is taxed. Moreover, the use of force always looms on the horizon. Threatening, beating, expelling, and murdering are meant to resolve economic conflicts.
As we sought to discuss in this paper, removal processes shed light on informal real estate markets. We shall not criminalize them, for they already are the main form of access to housing in Brazil (Abramo 2009). Removal processes raise conflicts over the trade values of houses and thus turn visible moralities, economic calculations, and political alliances in place to reach fair trades. The political arenas organized to discuss their future engage people in collective problematizations of courses of action. Families raise moral arguments to find a fair equivalent for their houses between their struggle to self-build and the militia’s exploitation. We can understand the modes of production, commercialization, and regulation of houses in informal real estate markets and differentiate self-construction from militia urbanisms by paying attention to these valuation regimes.
1In 1960, the capital of Brazil was transferred to the then recently constructed city of Brasilia, in the country’s central plateau. The former federal district became the state of Guanabara and was only unified to the state of Rio de Janeiro in 1975.
3In June 2010, the City of Rio de Janeiro announced Morar Carioca, a program for precarious informal settlements. The program, implemented by the Municipal Housing Secretariat (SMH), was presented as one of the main legacies of the 2016 Olympic Games for the city. Its goal was the urbanization of all Carioca favelas by 2020, but the program never got off the ground.
4For more on the padrinho’s trajectory from police officer to local miliciano, see Araujo 2017.
5In June 2010, the City of Rio de Janeiro announced Morar Carioca, a program for precarious informal settlements. The program, implemented by the Municipal Housing Secretariat (SMH), was presented as one of the main legacies of the 2016 Olympic Games for the city. Its goal was the urbanization of all Carioca favelas by 2020, but the program never got off the ground.
6In our fieldwork, community leaders and the padrinho justified charging fees as forms of collecting money for investments in infrastructure, such as paving and street cleaning, and protection against crime. When asked if the militia acted in the area, they all rejected the idea. That was a ‘police area’, not a militia one, where drug use and selling were prohibited and, thus, tranquility reigned. To create an aura of legality for the fees, receipts were provided.
7The Comite Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas [The Popular Committee for the Cup and the Olympics] produced a dossier about human rights violations in the community. It is available at http://memoriadasolimpiadas.rb.gov.br/jspui/handle/123456789/849.
8The uncertainty and lack of understanding involved in a removal process can be thought of with the concept of ‘illegibility of the state,’ coined by Veena Das and Debora Poole (2004). This concept refers to the incapacity of people to understand or see coherence in state actions, statements, and documents. By becoming opaque and illegible, the state, through its multiple agents, artifacts, and performances, coproduces indetermination in daily life, along with other social actors.
The authors have no competing interests to declare.
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