The logic of criminal territorial control: military intervention in Rio de Janeiro

Nicholas Barnes*

*Corresponding author for this work

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How do organized criminal groups (OCGs) respond to military interventions intended to weaken and subdue them? In many cases, such crackdowns have proven counterproductive as OCGs militarize, engage in violence, and confront state forces directly. Existing studies have pointed to several explanations: inter-criminal competition, unconditional militarized approaches, and existing criminal governance arrangements. Much of this work, however, has focused on national, regional, or even municipal level variation and explanations. This article takes a micro-comparative approach based on 18 months of ethnographic research in a group of Rio de Janeiro favelas (impoverished and informal neighborhoods) divided between three drug trafficking gangs and occupied by the Brazilian military from 2014 to 2015. It argues that an active territorial threat from a rival is the primary mechanism leading OCGs to respond violently to military intervention. It also demonstrates that geographic patterns of recruitment play an important role in where OCG rivalries turn violent during intervention.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)789-831
Number of pages43
JournalComparative Political Studies
Issue number5
Early online date15 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2022


  • Organized crime
  • Drug trafficking
  • Gangs
  • Military intervention
  • Territorial control
  • Ethnography
  • Rio de Janeiro


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