Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Perverse Justice of São Paulo’s Slums

A review of “The Killing Consensus” by Graham Denyer Willis

Paperback, 192 pages

Graham Denyer Willis doesn’t go as far as calling Brazil a failed state in his book The Killing Consensus, but anyone looking to support such a claim would find plenty of evidence in this examination of a São Paulo crime syndicate and the underpaid and often corrupt homicide investigation unit tasked with confronting it. As its title implies, the book takes a hard look at who lives and who dies in a system of justice that the author suggests is deeply flawed.

A University of Cambridge lecturer and Ph.D. in urban and regional studies from MIT, Denyer Willis begins his argument by citing the pronounced drop in São Paulo’s homicide rate from the 1990s to the 2000s. The number of homicides per year per 100,000 residents in São Paulo rose from 18 to 63 from 1980 to 1999, but by 2010 the figure was back below 20. Denyer Willis dutifully pro- vides the official explanation, which credits improved policing for the decline. But he doesn’t believe that. I worked as a foreign correspondent in São Paulo during that period, and I don’t believe it either.

Along with some Brazilian scholars, Denyer Willis instead links the decline in murders to the rise of a crime syndicate called Primeiro Comando da Capital, best known by its acronym PCC.

The PCC traces its origins to the massacre of over 100 inmates at the Carandiru Penitentiary following a 1992 prison riot. Soon after the incident, the PCC had extended its authority beyond the prison gates. It established an elaborate private justice system for its members and the residents of São Paulo’s poorer districts, a system that would mostly eliminate the squabbling among smaller rival gangs that, until then, had often ended in bloodshed.

“The violence that had consumed daily life was receding and residents were feeling more secure,” writes Denyer Willis.

The social and economic context in which the gang continues to operate can help explain why it has flourished. Brazilians, in general, can be divided into two groups. In the first are those with the financial means to pay taxes, but who mostly live outside the public system. They send their kids to private schools, get treatment through private health plans, and keep safe with private security guards.

In the second group are the majority, those who must rely on substandard public services. Their children are crammed into underfunded classrooms staffed by poorly trained teachers. They are forced to seek medical care from overcrowded public hospitals, and they find themselves at the mercy of police forces that, at best, they mistrust. As Denyer Willis tells it, this lack of faith in law enforcement should not be surprising. He describes how police officers customarily shoot suspects under sometimes specious allegations of “resisting arrest,” a way to rid the city of “bandidos,” or thieves.

The result of PCC influence and this wary relationship with the police, writes Denyer Willis, is a two-pronged justice system that, in a perverse way, provides a semblance of order.

Yet wars sometimes break out between the police and the PCC, leading to multiple assassinations on both sides. Police officers tell the author that these periods of violence can only be ended by high-level negotiations between politicians and PCC top brass, who are often in prison. Denyer Willis paraphrases a detective he calls Robson, who says that conflicts either end in an “all-out bloody campaign of multiple years at least,” or when “some politician gets in a helicopter and flies to the prison to meet the PCC leadership, just like last time.”

This book follows in a tradition of scholarly ethnography that remains accessible to the general reader. Much of the theoretical material is restricted to a single chapter that can be skipped by those who might want to read the book simply to better understand Brazilian society.

But there’s an elephant in the room that Denyer Willis mentions only in passing: The PCC’s main source of revenue is drug sales. One can only speculate what would happen if Brazil were to renounce the War on Drugs, regulate and tax the sale of controlled substances, and use the extra cash to raise teacher and police salaries and provide high-quality public services.

Bill Hinchberger (@hinchberger) is a Paris-based journalist who lived in Brazil for over two decades. He has covered Latin America for outlets including The Financial Times, Business Week, and Variety, and is the founding editor of the online travel guide BrazilMax.com.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.

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