The best books about the drugs and violence in Brazil

Robert Gay Author Of Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer
By Robert Gay

Who am I?

When I was twelve, my family moved to Brazil for a year because of my father’s work. I’ve been fascinated by the country and it has been always been the focal point of my research. Initially, my focus was how neighborhood associations in Rio’s favelas took advantage of new political opportunities during the transition to democracy in the mid-1980s. By the mid-1990s, however, the neighborhoods had all been occupied by heavily armed and occasionally violent drug gangs. Since then, I've tried to figure out the dynamics of this process, from the involved actors’ points of view. Including the voices of participants in drug gang life and those, like Bruno, who bring drugs to market.


I wrote...

Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer

By Robert Gay,

Book cover of Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer

What is my book about?

Bruno tells the story of a young man who joins the Brazilian Navy and becomes involved in smuggling cocaine from the border with Bolivia to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Following his arrest, he is sentenced to eight years in prison where he joins the ranks of the Comando Vermelho, the oldest and most infamous of Rio’s organized crime factions. Based on extensive interviews with the author, the book details the day-to-day of prison life; the inner workings of the Brazilian drug trade; the structure of criminal factions; and the complexities of the relationships and links between the prisons, drug trade, gangs, police, and favelas.

The books I picked & why

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Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown

By Donna M. Goldstein,

Book cover of Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown

Why this book?

If you want to get a taste of what life is like in a Rio favela, then this is the book for you. Based on years of meticulous fieldwork, Goldstein documents the hardships endured by a woman she befriended who works as a maid for a wealthy family in the city. More importantly, however, Goldstein’s book describes in detail how life in a Rio favela changed as violence associated with the drug trade overwhelms the community. When she began her fieldwork, in the early 1990s, Rio was enjoying a period of relative calm. By the end of the 90s, however, Goldstein could no longer risk visiting her friends for fear of her own personal safety. 

Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown

By Donna M. Goldstein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Laughter Out of Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Donna M. Goldstein presents a hard-hitting critique of urban poverty and violence and challenges much of what we think we know about the "culture of poverty" in this compelling read. Drawing on more than a decade of experience in Brazil, Goldstein provides an intimate portrait of everyday life among the women of the favelas, or urban shantytowns in Rio de Janeiro, who cope with unbearable suffering, violence and social abandonment. The book offers a clear-eyed view of socially conditioned misery while focusing on the creative responses - absurdist and black humor - that people generate amid daily conditions of humiliation,…


Children of the Drug Trade

By Luke Dowdney,

Book cover of Children of the Drug Trade

Why this book?

Based on meticulous and ground-breaking research, this book examines the roles played by children and adolescents in the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro. The author and his team interviewed twenty-five young men involved with the drug trade, plus various other local actors. The testimonies reveal that the participation of children and adolescents is a function of a thriving drug market, the absence of alternative opportunities, and the corrupt and repressive nature of local security forces. I know of no other book with such unparalleled access to child combatants in Rio’s favelas. 

Children of the Drug Trade

By Luke Dowdney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Children of the Drug Trade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil

By Graham Denyer Willis,

Book cover of The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil

Why this book?

This tremendous little book is about who has the right to discipline and kill. In an ideal world, the author argues, this right is monopolized by territorial entities we know as states. This is not the case in Brazil, however. In Brazil, or rather in metropolitan São Paulo, the right to discipline and kill is shared—hence the book’s title—between the various agents of the public security state and an extremely well-organized and powerful criminal faction known as the Primeiro Comando do Capital or PCC.

The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil

By Graham Denyer Willis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Killing Consensus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We hold many assumptions about police work that it is the responsibility of the state, or that police officers are given the right to kill in the name of public safety or self-defense. But in The Killing Consensus, Graham Denyer Willis shows how in Sao Paulo, Brazil, killing and the arbitration of normal killing in the name of social order are actually conducted by two groups the police and organized crime both operating according to parallel logics of murder. Based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork, Willis' book traces how homicide detectives categorize two types of killing: the first resulting…


Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City

By Luiz Eduardo Soares,

Book cover of Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City

Why this book?

Luiz Eduardo Soares is a Brazilian anthropologist who served as the Coordinator of Public Safety in Rio de Janeiro in 1999 and the National Secretary of Public Security in 2003. As a consequence, he has a unique and very personal take on the relationship between poverty, drugs, and violence, and drugs at the local and country level. This book offers the reader a series of engaging essays on Soares’ experiences in office, revealing the near impossibility of reforming the system in the face of endemic corruption and a culture of violence in the public sphere. It is a great read!

Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City

By Luiz Eduardo Soares,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rio de Janeiro as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A book as rich and sprawling as the seductive metropolis it evokes, Rio de Janeiro builds a kaleidoscopic portrait of this city of extremes, and its history of conflict and corruption. Award-winning novelist, ex-government minister and sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares tells the story of Rio through the everyday lives of its people: gangsters and police, activists, politicians and struggling migrant workers, each with their own version of the city. Taking us on a journey into Rio's intricate world of favelas, beaches and corridors of power, Soares reveals one of the most extraordinary cities in the world in all its seething,…


Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security

By Enrique Desmond Arias,

Book cover of Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security

Why this book?

Arias’ book is the product of nine years of intensive ethnographic research in three favelas (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro. This enables him to assess how local community leaders deal with the parallel power of drug gangs that become entrenched in their neighborhoods. Unable to rely on the police, who are violent and corrupt, community leaders are forced to find ways to coexist with actors who represent a substantial financial and military threat to their authority. In terms of methodology, this is a really impressive piece of research!

Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security

By Enrique Desmond Arias,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Taking an ethnographic approach to understanding urban violence, Enrique Desmond Arias examines the ongoing problems of crime and police corruption that have led to widespread misery and human rights violations in many of Latin America's new democracies. Employing participant observation and interview research in three favelas (shantytowns) in ""Rio de Janeiro"" over a nine-year period, Arias closely considers the social interactions and criminal networks that are at the heart of the challenges to democratic governance in urban Brazil. Much of the violence is the result of highly organized, politically connected drug dealers feeding off of the global cocaine market. Rising…


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