Monitored Confinement and Rule by Philanthropy in Rio de Janeiro and Baltimore

By Alessandro Angelini, Johns Hopkins University

This Speaking Justice to Power installment focuses on the Americas, North and South, to foreground the divergent historical roots of the region’s new authoritarianism, now being enacted through confinement practices in numerous states. A multi-part PoLAR conversation with Karina Biondi (APLA Book Prize winner 2017), Catherine Besteman (President Emeritus, APLA) and Orisanmi Burton, complements this Speaking Justice installment’s focus on authoritarian practices of confinement and cauterization.

The Military Police Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) raises the national flag over Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, as a flatbed truck loaded with confiscated motorcycles rolls by, on November 13, 2011. The police operation was indeed celebrated as the “reconquest” of territory by the Brazilian state. Source: O Estado de S. Paulo.

A 2009 classified cable from the US Consulate in Rio de Janeiro, later declassified by the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks, outlined the scope and ambitions of the public security cum development program known as favela “pacification.” A year prior, the state had launched an initiative aimed at reclaiming territories controlled by drug gangs. Pacification represented a strategic overhaul in law enforcement: intermittent, violent police raids were replaced by premeditated campaigns to occupy informal settlements with community police units, a model drawn from similar experiments in Medellín and New York City.

While drawing comparisons with US geopolitical strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the leaked official document cited estimates that integrating squatter settlements into mainstream markets and society would contribute 38 billion Brazilian Reals (US$21 billion) to the city’s economy through new commerce and jobs. The principal challenge of the project, the report claimed, would be “to convince favela populations that the benefits of submitting to state authority (security, legitimate land ownership, access to education) outweigh the costs (taxes, utility fees, civil obedience)” (US Consulate 2009). As soon as pacification police units, or UPPs, were installed in pilot communities, with hardly any gunfire exchanged during the takeovers, the electric company, cable TV providers, and other private utilities arrived to formalize illicit urban services. Brazil’s then richest man, Eike Batista, enthusiastically sponsored the UPP program, donating millions to outfitting new units. The extended presence of the UPPs served to surveil residents under this new political and economic regime, particularly through control over their movement in and out of the favela. What had been branded as a campaign of liberation from the tyranny of armed gangs had revealed itself to be an instrument to contain and discipline Rio’s working poor.

It is impossible to miss the parallels between the Rio pacification experiment and policing in Baltimore, where I now live and work. Both cities are riven by deep racial and class divides, yet the geography of segregation is a patchwork of rich and poor neighborhoods. Policing, both state-run and privatized, enforces these urban boundaries and the lived sense of two worlds conditioned by patrols and checkpoints. Lester Spence, political scientist at Johns Hopkins, outlines two modes of neoliberal urban policing: smaller towns and suburban districts disinclined to tax wealthy residents or businesses deploy their police forces to accumulate revenue in the form of fees and tickets. In cities like Baltimore, which spends almost $500 million per year on law enforcement, the police act as a “a tool of social control — a blunt instrument to contain “surplus” populations so they don’t threaten elite-driven economic development… In effect, the city is producing and reproducing a population that has no functional purpose other than to be policed.” (Spence 2016). Police are conditioned in training and socialization to perceive urban working-class neighborhoods as wild frontiers and confront their inhabitants as unruly savages (Fassin 2013).

Black Lives Matter Protest” by Bruce Emmerling. Public Domain. 

The repressive role of the Baltimore police reached its apotheosis when a secret program to fly a specially-outfitted surveillance aircraft over the “murder capital of America” was revealed in an investigative exposé (Reel 2016). Persistent Surveillance Systems, a private security firm, had flown a Cessna at 8,000 feet over the city for hundreds of hours in 2016, beaming images in real-time of criminal activity to police without the knowledge of the mayor, city officials, or the public. The plane mounted with imaging cameras had been adapted from its original deployment in the Iraq counter-insurgency war. A municipal hearing determined that the “eye in the sky” was developed through direct aid from billionaire donors Laura and John Arnold. The latter had amassed a fortune as a natural gas trader and hedge fund manager before retiring at age 38 and turning to philanthropy.

Financial backing from elite funders of policing programs reflects the concerns of the ultra-rich not merely toward undesirables but more specifically toward the state’s capacity to reproduce the marginalized as such. Carceral power—“the techniques and technologies… of policing, containment, surveillance and the establishment of territory, the creation of frontiers— [is] not only a way to contain Black people; it [is] also a process for producing masculinity,” argues Rashad Shabazz (2015:2). The political power of so-called humanitarian donors functions in effect as a kind of shadow authoritarianism managing state power from a technocratic and moral position outside the democratic process.

In 2014, Batista went spectacularly bankrupt as $40 billion of speculative value in his offshore oil venture evaporated. His downfall presaged the economic collapse of Brazil at large as commodity prices plummeted. Public security budgets were drastically cut immediately following the 2016 Olympics hosted in Rio. The drug gangs have eroded and supplanted UPPs’ control as young men return to brandish automatic rifles on favela passageways. Meanwhile, after public outcry grounded the secret plane program in Baltimore, and after a Justice Department investigation found widespread corruption among city police officers and issued the department a reform decree, a coalition of community groups called for the plane to fly again—only this time to track the police. “Why not have the cameras turned around on them?” asked a community organizer (Broadwater 2018). Such civic mobilizations represent a claim to the city and imaginatively seek to turn carceral power in on itself.

AA office headshot.jpgAlessandro Angelini is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He studies how building practices and cultural production shape political subjectivity in urban squatter settlements. His first book project, titled Model Favela: Youth, Second Nature, and Rio de Janeiro, based on four years of ethnographic research, is about the social ordering of creativity.




Broadwater, Luke
2018   “A Group Is Trying to Get the Grounded Baltimore Police Surveillance Airplane Flying Again. The Pitch: It Can Catch Corrupt Cops.” Baltimore Sun, February 22., accessed October 29, 2018.

Fassin, Didier
2013   Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing. Malden, MA: Polity.

Reel, Monte
2016   “Secret Cameras Record Baltimore’s Every Move From Above.” Bloomberg Businessweek, August 23., accessed October 29, 2018.

Shabazz, Rashad
2015   Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Spence, Lester
2016   “Policing Class.” Jacobin, August 16., accessed October 29, 2018.

US Consulate
2009   “Counter-Insurgency Doctrine Comes to Rio’s Favelas.” WikiLeaks., accessed January 1, 2011.


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