Citizenship or Favelaship

Interview with Caio Ferraz

by | Apr 20, 1998

Above left: a favela scene; Above right: Vigário Geral, the Favela where Caio Ferraz grew up, has its own commercial structure.

While conducting pre-dissertation research on local social movements in Brazil in the summer of 1996, I decided to visit several of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. A Brazilian anthropologist friend suggested that we visit the favela of Vigário Geral in the northern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. I had already known about Vigário Geral, the site of an infamous August, 1993, massacre of 21 people by a death squad composed of off-duty members of the Rio police. What I knew less about was the response of locals to this tragic incident. In the wake of the killing, residents of Vigário Geral had organized a local social movement to protest police brutality, work towards peace, help educate and extend services to the community-especially to its youth, who were often at risk of violence and involvement in the drug trade-and do what they could to improve their situation. When I met with members of this organization, known as the Casa da Paz, or House of Peace, they soon asked where I was from, and I responded, Boston. “Well,” several people said, “then you have to meet with the person who helped set this up, Caio Ferraz. After all, he lives in Boston now.”

This is how I came to know Caio, a Brazilian sociologist born and raised in the favela of Vigário Geral who became a visiting scholar at MIT. In response to the 1993 massacre, Caio and others in the neighborhood created the Casa da Paz, building it on the location of a house where the police had killed eight members of a family of evangelical Protestants.

Although Caio received innumerable prizes from human rights organizations, including the University of São Paulo’s Severo Gomes human rights prize from President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, he received even more death threats because of his political activities and denunciations of police violence. Caio decided to seek political asylum in the United States. His fears were not unfounded: in June, 1994, Reinaldo Guedes Miranda and Hermogenes da Silva Almeida, two Workers Party advisors investigating the Vigário Geral killings, were found dead, murdered execution style. The policemen believed to be responsible for the massacre, however, have not been brought to justice.

Caio currently lives with his wife and two daughters in Somerville, where I conducted this interview in Portuguese. (Those who are interested in the Casa da Paz can visit their website, at ).

BP: Caio, the last time that I was visiting Vigário Geral, in August of 1997, the police had a full-time presence there. Before, the police were only entering to conduct raids. Could you talk a bit about the relationship between people in Vigário and the police?

CF: I think that the only really positive factor, in an immediate sense, is that there aren’t any more shootouts. The social tension then was really very great. I remember the peak of the war between Vigário and Parada (another favela), in about ’86 or ’87, when I lived there. Everyday, at least once or twice a day, there were shootouts between the two neighborhoods for two or three hours. Serious shootouts. You saw the houses, how many had bullet holes. Imagine how many people died. You saw the statue that (our mutual friend) Valmir made of bullets, right? More than 10,000 bullet shells, That was a beautiful idea-to transform bullets into a work of art.

I’d lived with this since I was a child: I was born and raised in Vigário and I’m now 29. My father was a construction foreman, and actually helped build Vigário Geral. So when you see the evolution of the drug dealing, which began in ’82 or ’83, actually at the time when Brazil was democratizing-and it’s interesting how these things are connected in a sort of magical way-and no one usually makes the connection .

These communities, not just Vigário Geral, but other favelas too-there are about 600 or so in Rio-all begin to fight with each other. Politically this doesn’t really concern the established powers, because as long as it doesn’t affect them, as long as they can live in Ipanema or Barra da Tijuca (wealthy neighborhoods in the southern part of the city of Rio), without being kidnapped or hit by bullets, no one said anything.

This went on until ’90 or ’91, when a wave of kidnappings of business people, of famous people began…There was a high level of police involvement with these kidnappings, which were logistically complicated. The kidnappings were seen as the fault of criminals coming from the favela, and once you connect this to the favelas, it stigmatizes them even more. People who live in favelas are seen as agents of evil, as representatives of marginality. So this really creates a sort of social and geographic apartheid, besides the economic form which always existed. So the person who lives in a favela is always seen as a potential enemy of society.

BP: I was really interested in Vigário Geral in the contradictory reaction to the police. People were clearly more relaxed, happy. But at the same time you can see that people was a certain tense relation with the police.

CF: Imagine that you live in this situation of war for these eighteen years. And someone shows up and says, I’ve got the solution. I’m going to put a bunch of policemen here. And one of the combatants in the war is been the police. You’re not putting the UN, or some neutral force in there. It’s one of the agents of the war. And they are also involved in a double sense: they themselves are poor, barely earn a decent salary, and are poorly trained and educated. They’re even often afraid of being there. But imagine your reaction. You’d be happy, of course. You wouldn’t hear any more gunshots.

I’m not saying that the police shouldn’t be in Vigário Geral. Of course they should. They should be everywhere. But they have to be there in a different way. They have to create social connections, so that the community feels interdependent with them, and create social projects so that when the police leave the community knows how to defend itself.

BP: How does this relate to the work you were doing in Vigário Geral before yu left?

CF: We were trying to create this sense of self-protection with the Casa da Paz. To criticize violence by the police or the traficantes. People really tend to criticize voluntary organizations like the Residents Associations, or the Casa da Paz, saying that we criticize the state, and the police a lot, and not the drug dealers. But our duty was first, to criticize the government, to demand protection because they are the ones paid to protect us.

Peace is a process, something that must be continually constructed. It’s not something you can just grab; it isn’t something you can hold on to, that you have or don’t have. So when I talk about peace in Vigário Geral, it’s not in these terms. Peace has to be constructed in a process of negotiation.

A dog’s life in the favelas.

What we were trying to do in Vigário Geral was to resolve a problem that has existed for 500 years. Because we never had decent housing, we never had plumbing, or electricity, or peace. We were trying to create the possibility of living. We were trying to say:

“Look, let’s put the cards on the table and see where the problems are.” So when you transform this into a protest-when a young person like me or Valmir who comes from a favela, who had all the potential for turning into a drug dealer, produces ideas or art-that’s a real change, a real transformation.

I always told people: you are the one who is going to forge your own concientization. Through education, through learning about computers, you and going to create a weapon, the computer will be your revolutionary weapon to transform yourself. So working in this area is to work, little by little, to give form to citizenship. Because what we have in many parts of Brazil isn’t citizenship, but favelaship.

BP: But these are communities that are always united in a certain way. There really is that vision, that there’s a separation, that Rio is two cities, that it’s a “split city”, even though there are lots of links between the two.

CF: Of course. The city over here, the white city of sun and beaches doesn’t exist without the city over there, the black city, the city of violence. It couldn’t survive. They are completely interdependent. Who would clean their houses, work in their buildings? This interdependence is economic, but it isn’t social. That sociability doesn’t exist. It’s fragmented, and that’s exactly the rupture of Brazilian society. It’s an apartheid, though of course not institutionalized, but one which was created by Brazil’s society and history.

There are lots of positive examples of how some communities are dealing with their situations. Brazil really is having a silent revolution: despite the Brazilian elite not caring about it, not paying attention, people are conquering, on the basis of daily struggle, their own citizenship. These are all sorts of small molecular revolutions. If today there is citizenship in Brazil, it’s because the people themselves are creating it.

Spring 1998


Ben Penglase is a Ph. D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Harvard University. He has researched humanrights problems in Brazil for Human Rights Watch, and wrote a book on police and death squad violence against poor adolescents in urban Brazil. He is currently interested in local culture, politics and identity in Rios favelas and their relationship to the state. He is also a passionate capoeirista, carioca and flamenguista.

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