HomeNewsAnalysisInternal Displacement in Brazil: An Inconvenient Truth?

Internal Displacement in Brazil: An Inconvenient Truth?


As Brazil works to project the image of a nation that is effectively addressing security challenges in its major cities, one important indicator -- internal displacement -- is being overlooked. 

That is the conclusion of a new working paper (pdf) by Humanitarian Action in Situations Other than War (HASOW)*, which will be published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Refugee Studies this fall.

Author Robert Muggah, director of Brazilian research center the Igarapé Institute, says that despite having fairly strong legislation to address the situation of refugees from other countries, Brazil has failed to deal with forced internal displacement, which Muggah considers to be a "humanitarian crisis within its borders."

Brazil lacks any official taxonomy of internal displacement, and the few measures that are in place are largely aimed at helping populations that have already been displaced, rather than preventing displacement from occurring, he adds.

The report outlines three categories of displacement: violence-induced, development-induced and disaster-induced.

Forced movement as a result of violence in Brazil includes displacement by both gangs and militias -- groups that arose as paramilitary forces involving municipal police and later moved into criminal activity -- as well as by the security forces. Actions by criminal groups can lead to long-term and inter-city displacement, while police and army operations generally produce shorter-term forms of displacement within a city.

SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles

In Brazil's favelas, Muggah finds that displacement usually occurs on a family or individual basis rather than en masse.

However, displacement of larger groups may be occurring in some communities under militia control, as militias push people out of their homes with the intent of selling them, according to Muggah. He cites unverified reports of militias helping displace residents of newly pacified areas in Rio de Janeiro, on behalf of politicians and business owners.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Displacement

Displacement caused by violence in Brazil's urban areas is hidden, with media, policy and academic circles remaining relatively silent on the phenomenon, Muggah told InSight Crime. The information on displacement remains largely anecdotal, appearing spottily in news reports and accounts by on-the-ground aid workers.

InSight Crime Analysis 

There are a number of factors that make displacement invisible, for Muggah. First, the fact that displacement is not understood as a discrete social category in Brazil. Because of this, there is a lack of systems to register complaints, or support victims. This extends beyond the Brazilian context -- throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the term "internal displacement" is generally applied only in situations of armed conflict.

Second, there is a lack of information on the scale of displacement, as forced population movements in gang-controlled areas of Brazilian cities are often "temporary, transient and episodic," Muggah told InSight Crime. Rather than entire communities being pushed off their land, families or individuals may move because they are unable to pay exorbitant extortion fees or have been directly threatened or harassed by the gangs. Unlike victims in places like the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala), victims are less likely to move far from their homes, he said.  

Third, there is what Muggah refers to as the "law of silence" -- residents' fear of speaking of the violence they are experiencing, or the displacement it has triggered, because of possible repercussions. 

However, the failure of authorities to address the problem of displacement in Brazil goes beyond an inability to get a grip on the numbers. As InSight Crime has noted, internal displacement is troublesome for governments, as it runs contrary to the image they want to project of being in control of security. This has led to authorities in places like Mexico largely ignoring the phenomenon.

As Brazil attempts to position itself as a progressive nation cleaning up its cities ahead of events like the recent World Cup, it is entirely possible that internal displacement is simply an inconvenient truth. 

"By 'naming' an issue, there is by implication an obligation to respond," Muggah told InSight Crime. Despite the epidemic violence perpetrated by criminal actors in certain cities, which for some local officials has reached the scale of an armed conflict, the central government is not keen to recognize a displaced population that belies its positive security narrative.

Brazil's principal cities are home to powerful armed gangs, such as the Red Command (CV) in Rio and the First Capital Command (PCC) in São Paulo. These gangs exert a great deal of social control in the zones where they operate, acting as a kind of de facto justice system with a private army ready and able to impose a death sentence on those who disobey them.

In addition to engaging in drug sales and trafficking, they recruit young children into their ranks and carry out extortion. Some people flee to avoid punishment from the gangs, while others are displaced -- either temporarily or permanently -- by inter-gang violence. 

Meanwhile, Rio's police-run militias enact a similar kind of vigilante justice as the gangs, exacting taxes on housing unit residents for basic utilities and protection. As Muggah notes, they have been known to displace residents in order to sell or rent out their apartments.

Efforts by authorities to push back against the gangs and militias have had limited success. Despite the government's ongoing pacification program in Rio de Janeiro -- which aimed to retake control of the city's favelas from the drug gangs -- a report released in late 2013 found that 454, or nearly half, of the city's estimated 1,001 favelas were still under militia control.

While the city's overall homicide rate is down significantly since the beginning of the pacification program, violent crime continues to be rampant in many areas, murders remain high on the outskirts of the city, and there are signs the gangs are returning to some pacified favelas. It is unknown to what extent the movement of gangs as a result of pacification may have caused displacement.

As Muggah notes, police operations have at times added to the violence -- a 2007 police security offensive against Rio gangs was described by media as being "like Baghdad."

While the most publicized cases have occurred in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Muggah said that urban displacement as a result of gang violence was also taking place in a number of smaller cities, including Fortaleza, João Pessoa, Maceio, Recife and San Salvador.

"These are some of the most violent cities on the planet, and we are seeing corresponding increases in voluntary and involuntary population movement," said Muggah.

The scenario bears a resemblance to urban areas in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, or Medellin, Colombia, where drug gangs extort locals, engage in violent clashes, and exercise an oppressive form of social control.

Intra- and inter-urban displacement is largely hidden, or at least significantly underreported in all these settings, but, for Muggah, the silence around displacement in Brazil is even more extreme.

*HASOW is supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

BRAZIL / 2 DEC 2022

Illegal gold mining in the remote Ecuadorian province of Napo has grown at a staggering rate. Environmental crime has grown…

BRAZIL / 14 SEP 2021

South Africa has made a rapid succession of large cocaine seizures in recent months, illuminating how the country and region…

BRAZIL / 25 AUG 2022

Portugal has seized a blizzard of cocaine in recent months, underscoring the country's role as a major drug hub.

About InSight Crime


Venezuela Coverage Continues to be Highlighted

3 MAR 2023

This week, InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott was the featured guest on the Americas Quarterly podcast, where he provided an expert overview of the changing dynamics…


Venezuela's Organized Crime Top 10 Attracts Attention

24 FEB 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published its ranking of Venezuela’s ten organized crime groups to accompany the launch of the Venezuela Organized Crime Observatory. Read…


InSight Crime on El País Podcast

10 FEB 2023

This week, InSight Crime co-founder, Jeremy McDermott, was among experts featured in an El País podcast on the progress of Colombia’s nascent peace process.


InSight Crime Interviewed by Associated Press

3 FEB 2023

This week, InSight Crime’s Co-director Jeremy McDermott was interviewed by the Associated Press on developments in Haiti as the country continues its prolonged collapse. McDermott’s words were republished around the world,…


Escaping Barrio 18

27 JAN 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published an investigation charting the story of Desafío, a 28-year-old Barrio 18 gang member who is desperate to escape gang life. But there’s one problem: he’s…