Small Wars Journal

Parties of Crime? Brazil’s facções criminosas – good governance and bad government

Mon, 07/19/2021 - 2:16pm

Parties of Crime? Brazil’s facções criminosas – good governance and bad government

Natalie D. Baker and Gabriel Leão

A state is not the only power that governs…

While government are systems that govern a state,[1] governance, is “a mix of all kinds of governing efforts by all manner of social-political actors, public as well as private; occurring between them at different levels, in different governance modes and orders.”[2] Thus, governance is more complex than government. While it can appear that a government and its institutions have sole power, this is a mirage. In reality, it is a multitude of socio-political actors that do, and they do not always have good intentions.

We examine complexities of governance in action through Brazil, which embodies a fascinating and somewhat blatant symbiosis of legitimate and criminal governance. On one hand, a variety of criminal factions, or facções criminosas (FCs or criminal factions) make up a considerable portion of micro/meso level governance,[3] and on the other hand, the national government as represented by the Bolsonaro administration is in some respects, no better than gangs that run the streets. The difference is the Bolsonaro administration operates as a legitimate government and FCs are criminals. However, neither can be said to perform good governance.


Policiais ocupam Complexo do Alemão (Police Occupy Complexo de Alemão)

Agência Brasil, Creative Commons, CC BY 3.0 BR, via Wikimedia Commons.

The United Nations defines good governance as comprising the eight following characteristics:

“It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.” [4]

If a stance is taken the social world operates in dichotomies, the opposite of good governance is bad governance. An example of the former is criminal governance. This is a form of governing structure imposed upon public behavior by collectives engaged in criminal activities.[5] Criminal governance is practiced by a wide variety of groups in multiple societal contexts ranging from local street gangs to diffuse prison organizations. Many criminal factions embrace their governing status and justify practices along the lines of ‘taking from those with means to give to those without’ or what is known as social banditry.[6][7] The provision of societal services and public good by criminal factions typically ascribed to formal government, such as neighborhood safety and health services, indeed constitutes a type of governance. However, criminal organizations are violent. Those that extort residents for security, do not provide good governance by definition. Yet, this also can apply to some instances of formal governance structures. Brazil is an excellent example.

First, we explore the role of militias, police, and corruption as forms of criminal governance, masked within legitimized government structures. We do so to better understand the fuzzy nature of good and bad governance. We do not ascribe to social dichotomies, however, and believe the case of Brazil demonstrates the quality of governance exists on a continuum. We use criminal factions to show how they compete in forms of governance within Brazil. This case points towards blurry lines within good and bad governance, both by legitimized government and that carried out by criminal factions.

Milícias and Government Corruption

Milícias (militias) are direct descendants of death squads that began in 1960’s Rio, and were embraced by the military dictatorship ruling Brazil from the 1960s-80s.[8] The first known—albeit unnamed—milícia [9] formed in Tijuca, Rio das Pedras, Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s. Militias were composed of both former and current military and law enforcement, citizens, and criminals. They had connections to Jogo do Bicho, Brazil’s organized mafia,[10][11] which also had ties to foreign groups such as Cosa Nostra, Bratva, and Abergil Family.[12] By the 2000s, militias had spread throughout Rio.[13] Currently 2.1 million (33% of the populace) of Rio de Janeiro city residents live under the iron grip of militias.[14][15] Militias carry out protection, welfare assistance, and other services that should be provided by state institutions.

Brazil's militias gain legitimacy through support from Jair Bolsonaro and his family. Bolsonaro has defended militia tactics, including extrajudicial executions.[16] During his 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro backtracked to condemn the more insidious militia tactics in a political performance, yet still supports militias in words and actions.[17] He and his family have ties with known members, which furthers suspicious about government corruption. The most famous examples are former military police Sergeant Fábricio Queiroz and Captain Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega.[18] The two men had been acquainted since 2003, through their mutual service in the military police and both had been employees of Flávio Bolsonaro. Nóbrega served as commander of two militias from Rio das Pedras and Muzema, and moonlighted as head assassin for the Escritório do Crime (crime office), a criminal group composed of those within active and former law enforcement ranks. Queiroz operated as a mediator between Flávio Bolsonaro and paramilitary forces of Rio.

In 2005, Flávio Bolsonaro, then a state lawmaker, presented the Tiradentes Medal to Nóbrega while he was serving time in military prison after being accused of murder.[19] This represented an endorsement by Bolsonaro of Nóbrega’s actions. In 2007, Nóbrega was acquitted, but by 2013, was expelled from his law enforcement position due to overt ties and historic connections to the Rio underworld. Nóbrega was killed in February 2020, after a shootout with the Bahia state police force.[20] He had been on the run as one of the main suspects in the assassination of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes.[21]

After the announcement of his death, Flávio Bolsonaro suggested on Twitter that had been tortured in the leftist-controlled Bahian state. Both Bolsonaros questioned Bahian authorities and called for an “independent” forensics team to determine whether he was tortured.[22] While Nóbrega was on the run, Fabrício Queiroz offered his mother support. He was also sought out for intermediating routine problems between militia members and a businessman in Itanhangá, Rio de Janeiro according to an audio intercepted by the justice system.[23] Queiroz was arrested because of his connections to an alleged corruption scheme in June 2020. At the time of his arrest, he was holed up in the countryside of São Paulo at a farm that belonged to a personal lawyer of the Bolsonaro clan. Further adding to the intrigue, in 2021, Bahia’s Public Ministry decided to exhume Nóbrega’s body to re-evaluate the cause of death, but found his remains located in a different cemetery than initially expected.[24]

In addition to being embedded in political corruption, Rio's militias play a major role in societal violence. They actively participate in the distribution of assault rifles and even heavy artillery in civilian communities.[25] These weapons function to showcase power to the subjects and enemies of gangs. Militias are not the only problem. Amnesty International raised the issue of police killings of citizens:

In 2015, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the police were responsible for one in every five killings,and in São Paulo, one in every four. Between 2006 and 2015, over 8,000 cases of killings by on-duty police officers were registered in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The majority of the victims during police operations in Rio de Janeiro are young black men.[26]

This continued well into Bolsonaro's administration. Paes Manso[27] shows that in 2019, six children died from stray bullets from police operations in Rio’s favelas. All the children were black and poor. Greenwald and Pougy expand on this issue:    

...when Bolsonaro and his family speak of crime, they almost always try to focus attention on the primarily black drug traffickers who live in the city’s poor favelas, rather than the far more menacing, serious, and terrifying source of criminality carried out by the Bolsonaros' ideological companions and heroes of the country’s sophisticated and skilled militias.[28]

With recent events such as the murder of over 24 citizens by police in Rio’s Jacarezinho,[29] the lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are blurry. Government corruption and complacency helps foster crime in favelas.

Facções Criminosas

Facções criminosas (criminal factions) are a considerable form of governance in Brazil. They routinely fight with police, military, and militias over dominance over not only favelas, but other poor areas, the prison system, and to some extent, the halls of power. Their origins came decades after the inception of Jogo do Bicho and its bicheiros in 1892. The game was born in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where formal organization processes solidified a massive underground gambling enterprise through the 70s and 80s as Brazil left its dictatorship behind.[30] The creation of hierarchical organizational structures and disciplinary tactics was accomplished through the targeting of former military recruits bringing skills in logistics, financial management, and espionage tactics. Lethal enforcers used for extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture in the heyday of dictatorship were abandoned and left without work. They were also absorbed by the bicheiros.[31] Criminal factions and militias modeled themselves after bicheiros as they created alternative and resistive sources of ‘assistencialism’ (where assistance creates dependency) and income while living in favelas.[32]

Criminal organizations are as complicated as the legitimate governance systems they both fight against and in many ways, replace. While Mexico is one example with its fascinating brand of corrupt democracy, Jones argues narcos operate in ways comparable to bacterial conjugation.[33] Members change affiliations and bring different approaches, such as infantry tactics from one group to another. A more fruitful comparison for Brazil's FCs is symbiosis, as in they provide for the citizenry, in the absence of good governance.[34] There was protection and impunity for bicheiros when their activities served state interests.[35] Criminal facções began to emulate the bicheiro approach and incorporated tactics, similar to conjugations enacted by narcos. However, once more organized factions such as the Família do Norte (Northern Family) the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC or First Capital Command, known as the ‘Party of Crime’), and especially Comando Vermelho (CV or Red Command), gained power, the influence of bicheiros waned.[36]

Criminal Governance?

The degree criminal groups operate within a state, and their spheres of influence with the government and in the citizenry depends on how the state wields its power. Lessing argues, “As long as criminal governance does not constitute a direct, existential threat to state authority, states can tolerate and benefit from it.”[37] This is the case in Brazil where criminal factions and other groups like militias are major forces of governance and operate within delicate symbiosis.

Covid demonstrates, the pandemic resulted in an elevated role for criminal groups. Police were not complacent. At the beginning of the outbreak, there were law enforcement operations within favelas and results were often lethal.[38] The Public Security Institute points to 944 deaths after a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting police raids in favelas during the pandemic.[39] Within favelas, gang leaders acted in the absence of formal governance—they implemented lockdowns, curfews, and created an ad hoc public health system, although not nicely. According to Peachy:

In its own backyard, Brazil's Red Command—a comparatively disciplined but confrontational gang that rode the rising wave of cocaine consumption from the 1990s—used social media and community radio in the favelas to spread its message of social control. With gang members living in the communities they controlled, they were in a better position than the largely distant government to know what troubled residents. The message from the criminals was clear: if the government is not going to do anything, we will act instead as public health guardians… “Rather than acting as repressive overlords, they have a connection with the population and they responded to the demands of the community.[40]

These actions were not surprising though:

Rio’s gangs deal in more than cocaine and sex; they provide subsidized electricity, repair roads, organize block parties, and feed hungry families in the slums they control, generally without sending a bill. Brazil’s government services are nowhere near as comprehensive, or as generous.[41]

Again, it is unclear in the case of Brazil, who exactly constitutes the true facções criminosas.

Criminal Governance as Insurgency

The Unidades de polícia pacificadora (Pacifying Police Units or UPP) were created to subdue crime in Rio’s favelas. The UPP was enacted in advance of a Papal visit and the 2014 World Cup and was a more socially invested approach than prior efforts.[42] While initially successful, crime eventually rose. Governments do not well understand these perceived ‘ungoverned spaces’ they attempt to govern, particularly with respect to informal structures that evolve with neglect.[43] Such spaces are consequences of, “the decline in the effectiveness of states as political and social constructs.”[44] Thus, they are not ‘ungoverned’ inasmuch as they are ‘alternatively governed.’ often by groups that are deemed criminal, insurgent, or both.

Relatedly, some scholars argue FCs in general are ‘criminal’ insurgencies.[45][46] These are defined as ‘“a contemporary form of conflict where crime and politics merge.” [47] As insurgencies, they create ‘new worlds’ in voids of good governance where criminals provide some semblance of order as much as they disturb it through overt violence. Ramos da Cruz and Ucko suggest:

With control established, the CV ensures local cooperation by blending terrorism with the provision of state functions, including governance, taxation, arbitration and the supply of basic services. As the state dissociates from its people, it loses legitimacy and sovereignty, and, over time, criminal insurgents come to be seen by these ‘failed communities’; as their protectors and representatives.[48]

While Brazil is ostensibly democratic, it suffers unfulfilled promises as “the country of the future”—a mantra professed by governing institutions. Palpable disappointment was an instigating factor in Bolsonaro’s ascendancy:

Facing an economic crisis and the disbelief in politics, the electorate chose a punisher (justiceiro) to rule them. As if the country decided to forsake their democratic institutions to become a giant Rio das Pedras managed by militia principles.[49]

Brazil’s government routinely operates outside of the law. Criminal factions, as insurgencies benefit and flourish with government corruption.[50] Most transgressions occur directly in the face of abject poverty and social degradation. Problems at the heart of Brazil’s criminal insurgency rest in the competing interests of various criminal players such as facções, with militias, gangues (gangs), mafias, and the state, and all their pathological interactions with one another.[51][52] This perverts the enactment of governance and has major negative consequences, namely for the public of Brazil.

What can be done?

What approach(es) would meaningfully negotiate those deep-seated societal issues that open up spaces for criminal governance, whether it is by criminals, the government, or both?

Groups like the Red Command could be vanquished when the government seizes and capitalizes on the strengths of their greatest advantage; its citizens in a manner not unlike counterinsurgency strategy[53][54] Attempts to incorporate elements of ‘good governance’ although that is not expected to happen perfectly. As insurgency is an inherently political issue—a way to defeat insurgency is through good, comprehensive, and meaningful governance. We do not disagree, but add a lesson in the crux of government failures and successes of criminal factions in the provision of services to publics, but also a corrupt government. These actors are oftentimes indistinguishable.

Criminal governance is a fundamental component of overall governance in Brazil for complicated reasons—foremost of which stems from the state's weak political capacity combined with the Bolsonaro administration's authoritarianism and endemic corruption. Facções criminosas fill in the gaps when the government fails. Clearly, they do not always provide ‘good governance' in that they terrorize citizens through violent crimes and engage highly questionable practices to accomplish their ends. However, the government is not innocent either, as it is tasked with the general care and well being of its citizens. An authoritarian-leaning government that turns its head away from, and at times participates in practices that defy their own morals, standards, and laws, are questionably criminal themselves.


[1] See Adam Jarosz, Ed., Good Governance and Civil Society: Selected Issues on the Relations between State, Economy and Society. Vol. 3, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2014: p. 3,

[2] Jan Kooiman, Governing as Governance. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003.

[3] Marcos Alan S.V. Ferreira, “Governance by Violent Non-state Actors as a Challenge to Sustainable Peace in Brazil.” Chapter 17 in Úrsula Oswald Spring and Hans Günter Brauch, Eds. Decolonising Conflicts, Security, Peace, Gender, Environment and Development in the Anthropocene. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature: 2021,

[4] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). “What is Good Governance?” ENESCAP. N.D.,

[5] Benjamin Lessing, “Conceptualizing Criminal Governance.” Perspectives on Politics. Vol. 20. July 2020: pp. 1–20, See especially p. 17.

[6] John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal, 12 December 2012,

[7] Peter Singelmann, “Political Structure and Social Banditry in Northeast Brazil.” Journal of Latin American Studies. Vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 59-83, 1975,

[8] Aloy Jupiara and Chico Otavio, Os Porões da Contravenção: Jogo do Bicho e Ditadura Militar: A História da Aliança que Profissionalizou o Crime Organizado. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2015.

[9] For an example of an unnamed militia as allied with the ‘Crime Office,’ see Leslie Leitão and Marco Antônio Martins, “Escritório do Crime: Rio das Pedras é o local que une a milícia e o grupo de pistoleiros de aluguel,” G1 (Globo), 7 June 2020,  See also, Jonathan Wheatley, “Rio de Janeiro’s militias: a parallel power in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.” Financial Times. 24 March 2019,

[10] Bruno Paes Manso, A República das Milícias: Dos Esquadrões da Morte à Era Bolsonaro. São Paulo: Todavia, 2020. According to multiple resources, the Jogo do Bicho is a game, but also synonymous with the mafia. Paes Manso argues for example,  “Since the 1960s, the infiltration from Jogo do Bicho into institutions was deepened, reproducing strategies from international mafias.”

[11] Op. cit. Aloy and Chico, Os Porões da Contravenção.

[12]  Op. cit. Paes Manso, A República das Milícias.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Rio das Pedras, Onde Prédio Desabou no Rio, É o Berço das Milícias No Brasil; Entenda Como os Grupos Surgiram e Se Expandiram.” G1 (Globo). 6 March 2021,  

[15] Currently, milícias (militias) are the dominant form of criminal faction in Rio de Janeiro, outnumbering gangues (gangs). See John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia da Cruz, and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 32: Militias (Milícias) Surpass Gangs (Gangues) in Territorial Control in Rio de Janeiro.” Small Wars Journal. 26 October 2020,

[16] Op. cit. Paes Manso, A República das Milícias.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Fernando Molica, “Former PM linked to Flavio Bolsonaro received a medal in the chain.” Veja. 25 January 2019,

[20] “Miliciano Adriano Nóbrega morre em confronto com policiais na bahia.” G1 (Globo). 9 February 2020,

[21] Viúva do Capitão Adriano diz que chefe de milícia mandou matar Marielle." Poder 360. 16 July 2021,

[22] “Bolsonaro and son blast probe of Brazil hit man killed by police." Reuters. 18 February 2020,

[23] "Brazil corruption: Police arrest ex-aide to Jair Bolsonaro's son Flávio." BBC, 18 June 2020,

[24] Bette Lucchese and Mahomed Saigg, "Polícia diz que corpo do miliciano adriano não estava no cemitério indicado pela família na hora da exumacao.” G1 (Globo). 14 July 2021, “

[25] Op. cit. Paes Manso, A República das Milícias.

[26] “Brazil: Police Killings, Impunity and Attacks on Defenders, Amnesty International Submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review – 27th Session of the UPR Working Group, May 2017.” London: Amnesty International. September 2016: at p. 7,

[27] Op. cit. Paes Manso, A República das Milícias.

[28] Glenn Greenwald and Victor Pougy, “As Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro Prepares to Meet Donald Trump, His Family’s Close Ties to Notorious Paramilitary Gangs Draw Scrutiny and Outrage,” The Intercept. 18 March 2019,

[29] See Robert Muggah, “Rio’s bloody police campaign. Small Wars Journal. 7 May 2021,

[30] Op. cit. Aloy and Chico, Os Porões da Contravenção.

[31] Op. cit. Paes Manso, A República das Milícias.

[32] See Paulo Freire, Education for the Critical Consciousness. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 1974; as well as a discussion of its problems via Ismar Borges de Lima            and Victor T. King, “Tourism and ethnodevelopment: and Introduction,: Chapter 1 in Ismar Borges de Lima, Victor T. King, Eds. Tourism and Ethnodevelopment: Inclusion, Empowerment and Self-determination. London and New York: Routledge: 2018, ‘Assistentialism’ is generally conducted within ‘deprived’ communities amongst those of means. It is commonplace amongst missionary groups seeking to provide assistance to those of lesser means to also achieve another goal (e.g., conversion to Christianity). There are criticism of these practices in that, according to de Lima and King (2017) ‘assistentialism,’ “deprives agency from the community that outside organizations are trying to aid by treating the recipients of that aid as passive objects, incapable of participating in the process of their own development.”

[33] Nathan P. Jones, “Bacterial Conjugation as a Framework for the Homogenization of Tactics in Mexican Organized Crime,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29 March 2019: pp.1–30,

[34] Op. cit. Lessing, “Conceptualizing Criminal Governance.”

[35] Op. cit. Paes Manso, A República das Milícias.

[36] “Brazil: Red Command,” Insight Crime. 2 April 2013,

[37] Op. cit.  Lessing, “Conceptualizing Criminal Governance,” at p. 16.

[38] Terrence McCoy, “Rio police were ordered to limit favela raids during the pandemic. They're still killing hundreds of people.” Washington Post. 20 May 2021,

[39] Gabriel Barreira and Bárbara Carvalho, “RJ Teve Ao Menos 944 mortos em Ações Policiais Desde que STF Restringiu Operações em Favelas.” G1 (Globo). 7 May 2021,

[40] Paul Peachy, “Power in the time of Covid:  How criminal gangs have strengthened their hand during pandemic,” The National News, 26 June 2021,; Op. cit. Paes Manso, A República das Milícias. See also, John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds. Covid-19, Gangs, and Conflict. (A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Reader.) Bloomington: Xlibris, 2020.  Especially see John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia de Cruz and Robert J. Bunker, Chapter 1: “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 23: Rio’s Gangs Impose Curfews in Response to Coronavirus” at pp. 1-10.

[41] Carlo Massimo, “What Government? In Rio's Slums, Drug Gangs are the Government.” The Wilson Quarterly. 11 August 2015,

[42] Claudio Ramos da Cruz and David H. Ucko, “Beyond the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora: Countering Comando Vermelho’s Criminal Insurgency.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol, 29, no. 1, 2018: pp. 38-67,

[43] John P. Sullivan, “The Challenges of Territorial Gangs: Civil Strife, Criminal Insurgencies and Crime Wars.” Revista do Ministério Público Militar (Brazil). Edição no. 31, November 2019,

[44] Anne L. Clunan and Harold A. Trinkunas,  “Ungoverned Spaces? Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty.” Calhoun:The NPS Institutional Archive, Paper prepared for delivery at the International Studies Association 48th Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA, 26-30 March 2008,

[45] John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Criminal Insurgencies: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2012.

[46] Op. cit. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency; Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.”

[47] Op. cit.  da Cruz and Ucko, “Beyond the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora.”

[48] Ibid.

[48] Op. cit.  da Cruz and Ucko, “Beyond the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora.”

[49] Op. cit. Manso, A República das Milícias.

[50] Op. cit.  da Cruz and Ucko, “Beyond the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora.”

[51] John P. Sullivan, “From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security,” Working Paper N°9, Paris: Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme, FMSH-WP-2012-09, 2012,

[52] Nathan P. Jones, “The Past, Present and Potential Future of Third Generation Gang Studies,” Conclusion (pp. 495-517) to John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds. Strategic Notes on Third Generation Gangs. (A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology.) Bloomington: Xlibris, 2019.

[53] Op. cit.  da Cruz and Ucko, “Beyond the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora.”

[54] David H. Ucko, “Beyond Clear-Hold-Build: Rethinking Local-Level Counterinsurgency after Afghanistan,” Contemporary Security Policy. Vol 34, no.3. 2013: pp. 526-551,

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Gabriel Leão holds an M.A. in Communications from Cásper Líbero College and a post-graduate diploma in Politics and Foreign Relations from Sociology and Politics School of São Paulo Foundation (FESPSP).  Currently working as a journalist, he has published pieces at Vice, Ozy Media, Al Jazeera, Women’s Media Center and Brazil’s ESPN Magazine. His first language is Portuguese; he is also fluent in English and Spanish. His research interests include media, cinema, soft power, and politics.

Natalie D. Baker, PhD is an Associate Professor of Strategy at the National War College at
National Defense University in Washington, DC. She studies the production of social order in
mass crises and conflict, mass media representations of existential threat, journalist security
issues, as well as issues of criminal governance in Latin America. Dr. Baker’s email is



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