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From the Field

Rio de Janeiro: Storms, Militia, and Urban Development

The dramatic consequences of storms at the beginning of 2019 in a favela in Rio de Janeiro reveal the ongoing evolution of informal urbanization in the city. The development of militias, as a result of security problems and the withdrawal of public authorities in these neighborhoods, also affects building construction. Leandro Benmergui and Rafael Soares Gonçalves highlight the dangers of these developments.

At the beginning of 2019, in Rio de Janeiro, two violent storms caused a significant number of deaths and considerable material damage, once again highlighting the very poor state of urban infrastructure and the negligence of public authorities at the municipal, state and federal levels. As a result of these storms, two five‑story buildings collapsed in the favela of Muzema, in the West Zone of Rio, killing 24 people. [1] While the rescuers were desperately looking for survivors in the rubble, some voices in the media sought to blame the victims: they suggested that the owners of the apartments concerned aspired to a middle-class lifestyle without having to pay the taxes, transaction fees or building fees that would be charged in the formal city; however, no one talked about the reasons that had pushed (and still push) these residents to make such decisions, which are made in response to processes whereby minimal or highly exclusionary public housing policies converge.

The Muzema tragedy is linked, albeit indirectly in some cases, to other recent political events, such as the murder of city councilor Marielle Franco, who was shot dead (along with her driver, Anderson Gomes) while investigating the practices of paramilitary and organized crime groups, known as militias, operating in a number of Rio’s favelas and neighborhoods. The following reflections therefore attempt to contextualize historically the unintended consequences of the concomitance of climatic phenomena, public policies, and a new dynamic of informal real-estate expansion in certain of the city’s favelas that are controlled by militias.

Figure 1. Location of the Muzema favela

Source: Google Maps, 2019.

Pouring rain and public policy in Rio’s favelas

Towards the end of the summer, Rio is frequently hit by violent storms, which cause serious problems in the city. This year, however, they followed a pattern of disasters similar to those caused by rainstorms in 1966 and 1967, 1988, 1996, and 2010. [2]] These storms have left their mark on residents’ memories and on the urban planning and development of Rio, whose geographical and natural beauty is also a source of difficulties in daily life. Rio de Janeiro is a metropolis that has developed by occupying and transforming a rugged space, located in the middle of valleys, mountains, lagoons and foreshores.

The storms of the past 50 years have prompted responses in terms of public policy and urban sanitation. The 1966 rains, for example, caused landslides on several hills, leaving people dead and forcing people in the favelas to move out. As a result, the city created the Fundação Instituto de Geotécnica (Geotechnical Institute Foundation, now known as GEO-Rio), whose level of technical excellence is renowned worldwide when it comes to protecting hillsides threatened by collapse. The city council has also developed a great deal of expertise in infrastructure work in the favelas since the 1980s. This was reflected in the famous Favela-Bairro development programme in the mid‑1990s, which received funding from the Inter-American Development Bank to carry out infrastructure and urban services works in many favelas. The responses to the 2010 storms were more ambiguous: while it is true that the city created the Centro de Operação Rio (Rio Operations Center), an important high-tech approach to disaster management that equipped the favelas with weather radars and sirens to warn of the risks of landslides and mudflows during storms, the inhabitants themselves were not actively involved in the implementation of these measures; as a result, when emergency situations subsequently arose, they did not know how to react to these circumstances, even though they had been alerted by the sirens. [3]

The severity of 2019’s storms is particularly troubling when we take into consideration the institutional abandonment of the favelas on the one hand and, on the other, the multimillion-real investments and the rehabilitation efforts linked to the recent organization of huge international events. For example, “Olympic urban planning,” associated with voracious real-estate speculation and collusion between businesses, politicians and public authorities, all of whom took advantage of the opportunity to get richer through price inflation and public debt, [4] has led to further demolitions of favelas and increased segregation.

The inconsistency, short-term vision and inadequacy of urban policies that serve the interests of the favelas has fostered a great deal of distrust among their residents. High-quality urban improvement programmes, such as Favela-Bairro mentioned above, have been abandoned. The city council has preferred instead to use federal resources to build monumental structures such as gondola lifts or panoramic elevators, which are no longer operational because of the state of Rio’s inability to meet the very high maintenance costs. Residents have never been invited to participate in decision-making about the needs of their own neighborhoods.

Towards “militia urban planning”

Historically, the creation and the consolidation of favelas are linked to the existence of an informal real-estate market, structured by laws and urban-planning codes that had made alternative forms of land occupation and ownership illegal. [5] Here, the term “informal” must be understood as characterizing an urban regime through which the poorest sectors of Rio’s society have been able to access housing and indeed the city itself. The precarious nature of favela dwellers’ rights and the vulnerability of these residents, linked to the lack of official recognition of their existence, have led to numerous political arrangements between inhabitants, speculators and local politicians, which have led to the formation and consolidation of other settlements of the same type.

This dynamic is now taking on new proportions, as seen with the collapse of buildings in Muzema and the 24 associated deaths. The phenomenon of militias has spread over the past 20 years. They currently control more than half of the city’s favelas, especially in the West Zone. These militias, composed of serving and former members of the forces of law and order (police, fire brigade, military), operate in a manner comparable to organized crime rings and mafias. They gain territorial control of favelas by eliminating drug trafficking and administering a wide range of day-to-day activities: major investment in the construction of housing for sale or rental; control of alternative means of transport; collection of sales taxes on consumer goods such as bottled gas; provision of clandestine cable-television services; and protection and security for local traders.

For the past 20 years, militias have received indirect support from the authorities and many residents, who see them as a form of protection against the violence generated by drug trafficking. [6] At present, they even have municipal councillors and members of parliament who are indebted to them, as a result of the number of votes they control, through intimidation, the political demobilization of residents and the imposition of a code of silence. The investigations into the murder of city councilor Marielle Franco, who was scrutinizing militia practices, reveal the intimate connections that exist between militias, organized crime and certain sectors of political power, including one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s sons.

The militias have invested heavily in the local real-estate market, including in the construction of residential buildings, as was the case in Muzema, which is entirely under the control of these groups. [7] We propose that this new process of verticalization seen in the favelas be called “militia urban planning.” In this form of urban development, militias illegally take public land, subdivide it, and take on the roles of developers, realtors, and financial agents, thus directly or indirectly controlling all stages of the real-estate market, on the margins of any legislation. The buildings constructed in this manner copy the architecture and the consumption and housing patterns of the city’s new middle-class neighborhoods; however, their construction is not based on authorized works plans that have been validated by architects, engineers or accredited companies responsible for the quality and safety of housing. There is no public control to speak of, owing to frequent collusion with corrupt politicians.

Apartments are occupied even before they are completed—a strategy that makes it more difficult to halt work and thus avoids eviction by the city authorities. This type of vertical growth differs from what traditionally happened in the favelas, where the residents themselves gradually built new stories of buildings to live in, sell or rent, but in a much more progressive way, according to their needs and the means available to them. The new developments produced by the militias, which construct entire buildings, are situated within a market-driven approach based on the rationalization of construction process and cost savings on materials, in order to maximize profits.

In a city where the constant fear of violence and, consequently, the desire for security have determined the housing patterns of the middle and upper classes, one may wonder whether more socially deprived sectors of the population share these same aspirations. The viability of these real-estate projects is necessarily linked to access to informal forms of credit for occupancy and instalment payments, owing to residents’ inability to access the legal mortgage market. The comparatively low cost of housing in the informal market reflects the absence of public mechanisms in place to control land value, and the absence of Rio state policies for the production of social housing. The market, as the only regulatory mechanism, relegates low-income housing to the outskirts of the city and causes the cost and quality of the units built there to fall.

While the informal economy in the favelas has historically given rise to practices linked to organized crime and different degrees of abuse of power, including in relation to public authorities, there is currently change afoot in the links between various social and political actors, which must be analyzed in terms of their specificities. The action of militias is synonymous with a new dimension of action on the part of parapublic criminal groups, in connection with security forces, that is profoundly intertwined with the public authorities and the state itself. And the core element of the militias’ action is the exploitation of urban resources without any kind of control by the state or local associations. Given the close link between the militias and the current leadership at the federal, state and municipal levels, it is more than likely that combating these groups will not be a priority of public security policies in the coming years.

Furthermore, “militia urban planning” is creating new problems: the federal prosecutor of Rio de Janeiro has suggested the expulsion of many residents from buildings threatened with collapse, without any in‑depth study of the quality of the buildings, and without proposing reasonable rehousing solutions. If the judiciary accepts the prosecutor’s proposals, it is possible that there will be a return to mass eviction operations in the favelas. These developments increase the vulnerability of a significant number of inhabitants, who risk losing both their homes and their investments. It is therefore crucial to increase the visibility of this problem in order to ensure these residents’ vulnerability—and rights—are placed at the very heart of public debate.

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To cite this article:

Leandro Benmergui & Rafael Soares Gonçalves & translated by Oliver Waine, “Rio de Janeiro: Storms, Militia, and Urban Development”, Metropolitics, 8 November 2019. URL :

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