In Brazil, organized crime is a difficult subject to tackle. This is at least in part because the dynamics of organized crime and violence in Brazil have been changing dramatically in recent years.
Historically, violence and crime have been synonymous with Rio de Janeiro’s favelas: marginal parts of the city where poor migrants settled, building their own homes piece by piece and outside the relative safety of urban services and regulation. Beginning in the early 1990s, images, stories and local and international headlines of poor, gun-toting young black men, often shirtless but otherwise wearing soccer jerseys, were ubiquitous. The favela-covered hillsides of this iconic city—the source of Brazil’s international image—were more or less off-limits to police and controlled by the city’s “big three” drug-trafficking organizations: the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) and the Terceiro Comando (Third Command).
Headlines about hostage-taking on buses or in luxury hotels and other wealthy parts of the city, which circulated widely and whipped up fear, inevitably traced criminality back to the favelas, seen far and wide as the source of instability through organized violence and drug and arms trafficking. From the 1990s until just recently, such violence was public, visible and shocking—during that time, a visitor to almost any favela in the city would have been greeted with military-type assault weapons.