Demand for Firearms in Brazil’s Urban Periphery: a Comparative Study Small Arms in Rio de Janeiro | Small Arms Survey
Benjamin Lessing  |  December 2008

Underlying much of the debate over gun control in Brazil, particularly the Disarmament Statute and referendum, has been a subtext of good, hardworking citizens under siege from a virtual sea of well-armed criminals left to their own devices by a corrupt and inefficient police force. The imagined locus of this much-feared armed criminality is virtually always the peripheral areas that have grown so rapidly in and around Brazil’s cities since the dawn of the industrial age. This is particularly true of Rio’s favelas, which have become the principal battleground in a militarized drug war between police and well-armed criminal syndicates. However, fear and a lack of comprehensive empirical evidence can lead to inaccurate perceptions and beliefs about these areas; worse, a misunderstanding of the dynamics of organized crime and the illicit arms market can lead public officials to adopt policies that aggravate, rather than mitigate, the accumulation of illegal weapons and the armed violence that inevitably results.

One barrier to uncovering the causal mechanisms behind firearms demand and armed violence in the context of Rio’s favelas has been their anomalous nature. Many researchers have assumed that the situation is so different from other cities—where nothing like the organized drug syndicates of Rio exists— as to be incomparable. This study takes the opposite view: we can only understand which features of the situation in Rio are contingent and which are crucial by comparing the strong territorial dominion of Rio’s drug gangs to weaker forms of local criminal organization in other urban settings. For this study, after completing an initial phase of research on demand in Rio’s favelas, I conducted field visits to nine peripheral communities in Porto Alegre, São Paulo, and Recife. I spoke with residents and current and former drug dealers and other criminals, as well as local police officers and government officials.

The results are analysed here in terms of three different segments of the peripheral area population: law-abiding citizens, or trabalhadores (workers); at-risk youth, i.e. those considering entering some criminal organization (or becoming an autonomous property criminal); and the criminal organizations themselves. I find that for each group, the degree of organization of the local drug trade is a crucial determinant of the dynamics of firearms demand.