Global Fieldwork: Witnessing the Spread of Prison Gangs in Brazil by Asst. Prof. Benjamin Lessing

Benjamin Lessing, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science
Edited by: Andrew Bauld and Louise Lerner | UChicago News

Lessing: Brazil’s prison gangs are very sophisticated. They began in Sao Paulo and Rio in the 80s and 90s, with each gang in the cities getting powerful by taking over the prisons. The gangs have been expanding, and they have a colonialist mindset. Imagine if a very powerful gang in Los Angeles took over a Los Angeles prison, and then took over criminal life in Los Angeles, and then suddenly took over the entire country state by state.


One of the states I went to had a very violent gang war—similar to what’s happening in Chicago—and the prison gang there got stronger, and in 2015 announced a gang peace. There was a drastic drop in violence. There was literally a parade of criminals, where gang members marched through the streets declaring there was a union of gangs. But the peace broke down, and neighborhoods now fight against each other.


Visiting the prisons and seeing the conditions in which the gangs operate and talking to prisoners, and visiting these slum communities, it was an essential starting point to my research. I won’t come back with a brand-new data set, but it’s important to understand the lived experience of the people who deal with this violence on a day-to-day basis.

This post has been excerpted from the UChicago News feature, "Fieldwork takes UChicago researchers across the globe."