10 January 2020

"Killing in the Slums: The Problems of Social Order, Criminal Governance and Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro" (2020) American Political Science Review May: 114(2):552-72

By Beatriz Magaloni, Edgar Franco, Vanessa Melo


Conflicts related to organized crime and gang turf wars have emerged as the deadliest form of violence in the world. This paper characterizes the variety of forms of local governance that OCGs establish in the territories they control. It also explores the mechanisms and processes that allow the police to take back territorial control and generate legitimate state order, as well as alternative conditions where police interventions fail, leading violence to escalate. Our paper contributes to various bodies of literature including drug trafficking violence, criminal governance, urban crime, policing, and state-building.



This paper generates knowledge about one of the most important security interventions in Latin America: Rio de Janeiro’s "Pacifying Police Units" (UPPs). Inspired by strategies of community-oriented policing, the UPPs sought to abandon prior militaristic approaches to policing favelas (slums) under the control of drug gangs and paramilitary groups. This paper takes advantage of the staggered implementation of the UPP when over 10,000 police officers were deployed to approximately 160 favelas to understand the challenges states confront in their efforts to regain territorial control.



A world without police is not necessarily one of anarchy. OCGs often establish local forms of governance where they contain violence and sanction crimes such as rape, assault, or robbery. Police interventions in these settings are likely to disrupt the existing criminal governance that keeps violence under control. By contrast, state crackdowns are likely to improve local security where OCGs are unable to restrain their violence or where they predate on residents.



This paper proposes a novel way of conducting research on criminality that combines extensive ethnographic research, automated text analysis of crime reports, a large-N survey, and quasi-experimental statistical modeling using crime indicators. To explore variation in criminal regimes, we first use ethnographic research in six territories selected according to our typology. To generalize beyond our case studies and offer support for our theory, the paper uses automated text analysis of thousands of anonymous tips collected by an independent Brazilian NGO, Disque Denuncia



  • Shifting territorial control ultimately requires community acceptance of the police rather than the OCG as the legitimate embodiment of physical force.
  • When criminal rule effectively provides local security, the state will have a hard time gaining territorial control because residents often feel safer under the rule of drug lords than with the police presence.
  • By contrast, where OCGs are unable to restrain their men from fighting among themselves and victimizing residents, it is significantly easier for the state to regain territorial control and create a legitimate state order.
  • Our paper also suggests that when the state fails to sanction police officers’ abusive behaviors and public justice systems fail the poor, the state will likely fail to regain territorial control.



Magaloni, Beatriz, Edgar Franco, and Vanessa Melo (2020) “Killing in the Slums: Social Order, Criminal Governance and Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro.”American Political Science Review 114 (2): 552-572.