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Dangerous Spaces of Citizenship: Gang Talk, Rights Talk, and Rule of Law in Brazil


This article considers an apparently perplexing aspect of democratization in Brazil: the use by notorious criminal gangs (comandos) from the poor urban peripheries and prisons of the discourses of democratic citizenship, justice, and rule of law to represent their own organizations and intentions. I situate this use within an unsettling development in Latin America generally during the last thirty years: the coincidence nearly everywhere of increasing political democracy and increasing everyday violence and injustice against citizens. My discussion considers these new territorializations of power and violence and their consequences for citizenship, democracy, and urbanization. To bring them to light, I focus on public pronouncements by Brazilian criminal gang that typically combine rationalities of crime with those of democracy, citizen rights, rule of law, and revolution. I also compare them with public declarations made by the police. I analyze both in relation to the historically dominant paradigm of Brazilian citizenship that democratization destabilizes. I then evaluate this destabilization with regard to the new kinds of violence and paradigms of insurgent citizenship that have emerged as characteristics of urbanization and democratization worldwide.

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