Understanding Violent Pluralism
In mid-2007 I traveled to a shantytown on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro
dominated by a milícia, a police-aligned vigilante group that typically imposes a
localized authoritarian regime to prevent violations of neighborhood norms.
Over the previous six months the growing milícia activities in Rio had attracted
substantial press attention, as the groups waged a fight to drive drug gangs out of
many shantytowns. After having spent a decade working in favelas dominated
by drug tra≈ckers, I was surprised by this community for several reasons, not
the least of which was the local residents’ association (am). Whereas in most
communities in which I had worked this building was usually quite small and
humble, in this community it had the size of a football field and contained not
just am o≈ces but a technical school, a large space for parties, and an extension
campus of a university. The source of some of the money for all this was of
course the local milícia, who instead of dealing drugs to support its operations
taxed residents for the use of local services such as pirate cable television, gas,
and water, and maintained robust contacts with the government through one of
its leaders who also served as member of Rio’s city council.
Several weeks later I visited a working-class comuna (group of contiguous
neighborhoods) in the northeastern section of Medellín, Colombia. Here I
spoke with a number of residents and observed a meeting of the neighborhood
presupuesto participativo, an adaptation of the innovative Brazilian orçamento
participativo (participatory budgeting) program. While scholars have widely
viewed this e√ort as an important component in deepening democracy in
Brazilian cities (Baiocchi 2005; Avritzer and Navarro 2002; Nylen 2002), in
Medellín it constituted the site of tense conflict between demobilized paramili-
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