Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David C. Brotherton


Jayne Mooney

Committee Members

Jayne Mooney

John Hammond

Paul Attewell

Subject Categories

Criminology | Inequality and Stratification | Sociology | Urban Studies and Planning


Rio de Janeiro, Favelas, Forced Removal, Resistance, Slum Upgrading, Public Security


This study highlights the complex and generally overlooked relationship between development, urban space, and security, and does so through a multiyear ethnographic study of Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela (slum/squatter community).

Since 2007 unprecedented resources have been devoted towards improving Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums), mainly in the form of large-scale favela upgrading and security programs. Coinciding with the historic improvement schemes in Rio, and in large part responsible for them, Brazil’s economy experienced one of its most sustain period of growth during the first decade of the twentieth century. For the first time, strong economic growth and a historic decrease in income inequality occurred simultaneously. This was a period in which the Workers Party, the PT, rose to the top of political power, a feat not achieved by a leftist party since the military overthrow of João Goulart’s democratically elected government in 1964. Under Lula and then Dilma, the PT era has seen some of the largest development and social assistance programs and policies implemented in Brazil’s history, such as the Program for Accelerated Growth (PAC), My House, My Life (MCMV), and the internationally known Bolsa Família, or Family Grant.

Meanwhile, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro’s pursuit to rebrand themselves as modern and developed through a series of mega sporting event capital of the world also official begins in 2007. Having passed the pilot test with the 2007 Pan-American Games, that same year Brazil won the bid for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Between late 2008 and early 2009 Rio de Janeiro state began the largest public security program ever, installing Police Pacification Units (UPPs) in strategic favelas. Also in 2009, Rio won the bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games. After over two decades of military dictatorship (1964-1985), a rocky transition back to democracy that was marked by another two decades of harsh neoliberalism and some of the world’s highest levels of inequality and violence, a sense of hope for better times was beginning to emerged among many Brazilians, and especially cariocas (natives of Rio). But as is often the case in the history of capitalism, in order to create change or “progress”, something must inevitably be destroyed.

In April 2010 heavy rains and landslides killed dozens of people in Rio’s favelas. The city’s mayor Eduardo Paes immediately announced what would become the city’s largest favela removal operation since the 1964-1975 military dictatorship campaign. The justification for removing what would have been at least 119 favelas and upwards of 200 thousand residents was based on protecting them from environmental risks, such as landslides and flooding. I was living in one the neighborhoods where the rains caused deaths and which was intensely targeted for removal. Although it was a terrifying experience, in another sense it provided a privileged position for observing how greed and corruption can pervert otherwise benevolent social programs and investments, such as protecting citizens from natural disasters and improving their neighborhoods.

Between 2009 and 2013 between 60-70 thousand residents of favelas were displaced from their communities. Of particular concern are the record numbers of forced removals occurring in areas important to elite lifestyles and capitalist accumulation in general. The figures would have been substantially higher had fierce local resistance not slowed the City’s plans. By mid-2013 the recent political economic crises gripping Brazil had begun and continuing mass removals became politically and by 2014 financially unfeasible. While “area of risk” classification have been responsible for the majority of removals, thousands of families have also been displaced because of urban upgrading and renewal projects related to the mega-events. I originally hypothesized that alongside the intense real estate speculation revolving around the World Cup and Olympics that favela upgrading and the UPPs would have led to more forced removals and even gentrification in strategically located favelas. These types of displacement have occurred differently than originally anticipated and much of this dissertation looks at the reasons why.

After years of carefully observing transformations from community level vantage point I came to believe that many of the changes produced by favela “improvement” programs are undesirable, and are negatively altering the urban landscape in ways most residents of Rocinha and other impacted favelas did not anticipate. In addition to other concerns, forced removals and incipient gentrification are increasing sociospatial segregation in Rio de Janeiro. Among the main descriptive contributions this research offers are multiyear (and ongoing) firsthand accounts of the specific tactics used in Rio de Janeiro to remove residents of favelas, and the contradictory role improvement schemes, including security programs, play in this process.