Book Review: Graham Denyer Willis’s The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil

Graham Denyer Willis’s The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil (2015) is a valuable contribution to the debate on statehood and sovereignty. The book is a product of what seems to have been intense ethnographic labor that took place in São Paolo, that Brazilian megacity where crime and violence run rampant and where routinized killing takes place involving police and an organized crime group known but not always officially recognized as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC). As a literary piece, the book borders on J.M. Coetzee in quality and it almost feels like a crime to give some of its essentials away in a review.

Denyer Willis’s book comes out of a world that is best characterized by what Kenneth Maxwell in a recent article in The New York Review of Books called the corruption of progress. This is a world in which the regime is required to secure global capital involving large-scale corruption (e.g. the Petrobras scandal, FIFA, the Mensalão scandal), while utterly failing to create a secure situation for its citizens, particularly for the millions living in “the spectacular favela,” to paraphrase the title of Erika Robb Larkins’ ethnography on police in Brazil. In such a situation a security vacuum arises in which urban residents are “left to cobble together their own security solutions: (Denyer Willis 2015: 7). It is in this light that Denyer Willis understands the emergence of organized crime groups such as the PCC. They are security-oriented collectives.

Now, why then is this book such an important contribution to our understanding of statehood and sovereignty? After all, we have read about “citizen security” before, for instance in the work of Daniel Goldstein in Bolivia, where the absence of police in marginal barrios has led to vigilante groups who tend to administer justice on their own initiative (e.g. in Current Anthropology, vol.51, no.4). Phenomena of this kind have also already been described as partial or horizontal sovereignties, with the regulation of life and death as the ultimate signifier of sovereignty, as in Jean and John Comaroff’s Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (2008). What then is so special about Denyer Willis’s notion of the killing consensus, or sovereignty by consensus?

The answer does not lie in the discovery of “self-help security” and the proliferation of “statephobic” attempts to security, nor does it have to do with the advanced level of the PCC’s social organization (e.g. PCC tribunals and their pseudo-juridical processes), which the author so painstakingly describes. Its novelty comes from the well-grounded and ethnographically informed conclusion that police and PCC are not necessarily antagonistic. One may be surprised by this conclusion, considering the fact that the book is filled with vignettes about the “feud-like violence” that erupts when police and PCC clash – such as with the Mother’s Day Attacks in 2006 in which fifty-two police and prison agents were killed, murders that were retaliated by off-duty police who set up death squads to kill no less than 492 people. However, the author equally reports on moments of relative peace. To be sure, these “equilibriums” have their share of lethal violence, but they are precisely described as equilibriums because police and PCC are not at each other’s throats but share a common enemy; “a ‘disposable’ population that [the state] allow[s] to be preyed on under an acknowledged definition and common denomination of deservedness” (ibid.:12). This disposable population is defined by the PCC’s ethic of crime as much as it is defined by police and other state representatives – and sometimes police seem to be little more than cogs in the PCC machinery.

One of the many virtues of this book is that at all times the author manages to keep an eye on nuance. On the one hand, he describes the streamlining of witness and police statement as a standard practice, extralegal killings as routine, and police as a force that can turn the urban landscape into a battlefield. On the other hand, he argues, “these police are ensnared in a deeply unenviable position where they are distrusted by most, hated by many, and wished dead by a great deal more” (ibid.: 17). They are hunted and liquidated and their homes are invaded and their families threatened.

This nuance must at least partially explain why his op-ed published in The New York Times in 2012 was so well received by most of his informants. In part three of the book, the author reflects on his effort to go public, that is, to inform a broader public about his study. Upon his return to São Paolo, after some time spent in Canada, he found out much to his own surprise that he was still in good standing with most his former companions. They were glad with the voice they had been given. Much to the contrary, however, the political leadership of São Paolo’s police was not amused. Responding to the author’s claim that the PCC’s crime control has effectively reduced the number of killings, he was accused of an infatuation with the PCC.

These diverging responses are a direct confirmation of the author’s analysis. The structural violence observed is indeed a structural problem that has little to do with defects in the characters of individual street officers. The Public Security Secretary’s attempt to accuse the author of “character assassination” is unsuccessful as he makes clear from the outset that individuals are not his prime concern. Rather, he is concerned with the structural conditions of violence. It is exactly at this point that those who go public with their police ethnography (I think of the work of Alice Goffman, Didier Fassin, but also my own work) are incredibly challenged. They voice a systemic critique of police, but all too often this is a critique that those who are pivotal within the system do not want to hear. And yet, as Denyer Willis concludes in his New York Times article, a “cold reckoning with the system’s shortcomings is desperately needed.”

Paul Mutsaers, Tilburg School of Humanities, Department of Culture Studies

Reviewed in this Essay:

Denyer Willis, Graham. The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime, and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015.


About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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