Private Security in Brazil: the global versus the specific

One of the purposes of my project here is to differentiate what is the product of globalising forces (or indeed generator of such forces), and what is more specific and particular to each of the countries and cities that I am examining. If you skim Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk´s 2007 collection, Evil Paradises, you can certainly come away with the overall impression that everything bad in the world is down to neoliberal capitalism. But actually, many of the contributors to that book, particularly Tim Mitchell on the reasons why the state and private capital are so entangled in Egypt and Mike Davis himself on Dubai, are quite careful about describing the particular historical roots and contemporary developments that have led to the situations they observe. I am trying to do the same.

insurgentAs I wrote last week, the private security industry here in Brazil is obvious and ubiquitous. It is easy to see this simply as part of a trend towards privatisation, and the growth of personal, community and class-based responses to risk and fear that is pretty much the same, or is at least in evidence, all over the world. However, there are several factors here that point internally and backwards in time. The first was made clear to me reading James Holston´s superb 2008 book Insurgent Citizenship, which is both an excellent ethnographic study of contemporary conflicts over housing and land in Saõ Paulo and an illuminating historical account of the roots of such conflicts in the development of citizenship, property rights and order in Brazil from its foundation.

Brazilian National Guard troops in the C19th
Brazilian National Guard troops in the C19th

Holston makes a comparison between the foundation of Brazil and the other, and in many ways superficially similar, federal state in the Americas, the USA. He argues that whilst the USA consolidated itself within a smaller territory before expanding west, Brazil arrived as a massive fully-formed state. In consequence,  the USA developed a form of governance that expanded with the territory, and this included centrally-determined land surveying and an emphasis on small townships to control territory and organise development. Brazil on the other hand, being basically divided between highly administered colonial towns and practically no administration at all elsewhere, had ´an incapacity to consolidate itself´ (65). The state therefore depended on large landowners, and in particular after the creation of the National Guard (1831), which was delegated to these property owners, these landowners also acquired a military-police power. Effectively, this conflation of private interest and the law, or coronelismo, was built into the governing structure and culture of Brazil.

One of the thousands of private security firms...
One of the thousands of private security firms...

It is a masterly analysis but Holston´s one slight error, I think, is to call this ´a nationwide privatisation of the public´ (66). It is hard to argue this when the public had never really yet existed in anything like the idealised sense in which it is used by political scientists – in other words the nature of the ´public´ in Brazil was always pre-defined by the private, and by the power of the private, rather than the other way around. In other words, what has happened since, off and on, has been a struggle by the more democratic and progressive interests in Brazil to bring the private into the public. You can see this right up to the present day with the struggles by the state to prohibit and eradicate the so-called Autodefesas Comunitárias, the authoritarian paramilitary groups that have emerged in Rio and other cities in recent years. The struggle is essentially one of creating the ´public´.

Member of the elite Brazilian National Public Security Force in training, 2007 (EPA/Antônio Lacerda)
Members of the elite Brazilian National Public Security Force in training, 2007 (EPA/Antônio Lacerda)

The ADC issue highlights another historical reason for the dependence on and trust in, private security in Brazil. The reason is simply that the law is not trusted. Judges and courts have long been perceived as essentially tools of privilege and the official police in their various forms are not trusted by many people of all social classes. The former, as with coronelismo, goes way back into the post-colonial period, but the latter is also a particular legacy of the dictatorships (which can also be seen as the ultimate private control of the public), the last of which only ended in 1985. This leaves Lula´s government, the first that can really claim to be at all progressive, with several major problems: making an untrusted police more trustworthy whilst at the same time increasing their effectiveness and equipment; regulating the thousands of private security firms and, if possible, reducing the dependence of property-owning Brazilians upon them; and finally, and most importantly, dealing with the massive underlying inequalities, that are also a product of what Holston calls the the inclusive but inegalitarian nature of Brazil´s constitution and subsequent socio-economic development. The latter subject is outside the scope of my project, but I will be continuing to delve into the differentiations and intersections between segurança pública and segurança privada whilst I am here.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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