Clandestine Connections: Water as the Center of Dispute

By Camila Pierobon

This essay is part of Emergent Conversation 12, ILLICITIES: City-Making and Organized Crime

Pipes and water pumps, June 2020. Picture taken by Samuel, sent via WhatsApp.

In September 2015, a group of young armed men who worked for the drug trafficking group Comando Vermelho did a clandestine operation that diverted water from a residential property to a commercial one, both located in the city center of Rio de Janeiro.[1] The residential property, the Nelson Mandela Occupation, was a building occupied by 80 families of low income, while the second, the commercial property, had been invaded by the men who performed this job. Their clandestine operation made Rio’s existing conflicts around clean water supply even more complex, as armed actors joined the dispute for this vital good. This essay recounts the struggles of Leonor and Samuel, residents of the Nelson Mandela Occupation, to access clean drinking water—and the strategies elaborated by them to avoid that the water became controlled by members of the drug trafficking group Comando Vermelho. By analyzing the agency of the occupation’s residents, and in the actions of the young local traffickers, I seek to understand how vulnerable urban groups deal with and react to the conditions that criminalize them and make their lives even more precarious.

Infrastructures are the material conditions to make and remake life in cities (Anand 2017; Lancione, McFarlane 2016; Pilo’ 2020; Ranganathan 2014; von Schnitzler 2016). As such, infrastructures are at the center of “battles” that make the urban world (Appadurai 2013). My research demonstrates how criminal groups expand their territorial domain through the control of infrastructures. Beyond the use of weapons, these groups expand their domain by providing, repairing, or controlling water and power supplies. In a partially concealed fashion, “armed groups” control of infrastructures produces further levels of uncertainty into the lives of those for whom transit between the legal, illegal and illicit (Teles 2010) is part of daily routines. 

Connections, Repairs and Circulations

Beginning of the Occupation

The Nelson Mandela Occupation began in 2004 as an alternative housing for those who could not afford rent or wanted to live away from the control of armed groups, such as paramilitaries and drug traffickers. In the first weeks of occupation, the residents divided the labors that transformed a public building abandoned for 20 years into housing for 80 families. In this division of labor, men were in charge of fixing and connecting electricity and unclogging and repairing water and sewage pipelines. Women were responsible for cleaning the common areas and preparing collective meals during the intense days of work.

Samuel’s kitchen. Picture taken by Samuel, sent via WhatsApp, June 2020.

Unclogging and repairing the water and sewage pipeline in a 13-floor building demanded the effort of those who lived by informal hard work, as well as financial investments in the purchase of materials by families with limited budgets. The work to make water circulate happened in three parts: first, connecting the public pipeline to the building’s pipeline; second, unclogging and repairing the pipeline of common areas; and the third, in a private way, as each family fixed the pipelines of their own apartments. Without any help from the state and with limited resources, structural works to replace the old pipeline, eroded by time, were never done. The water leaks in the building’s walls were frequent since the beginning of the occupation. It was up to the residents to improvise solutions for an urgent problem that repeated itself and generated new urgencies (Simone 2018).

Leonor’s kitchen. Picture taken by Leonor, sent via WhatsApp, June 2020.

After the connection of public pipelines to the building, residents sought the support of activist lawyers to regularize the supply. These lawyers sued CEDAE and demanded, besides the regularization, subsidy for part of the water consumption through the “social fare.” [2] & [3] After two years of negotiations, this regularization and social fare were formalized. However, the regularization did not eliminate the precarity of water supply. In the ten years of field work I did at the Nelson Mandela Occupation, I witnessed several illegal cuts in water supply, charges for debts that were previous to the occupation, and, eventually, the provision of water mixed with sewage. In this brief description, we can see how pipelines materially connect the intimate life of families, the collective life of the building and the public life of the city (Anand 2017; von Schnitzler 2016).

Struggles and Conflicts

Water regularization

The regularization of water supply that occurred in 2006 inaugurated diverse conflicts between the occupation’s residents. There was only one meter to calculate the consumption of water, and it was located between the public pipeline and the building’s collective pipeline. A single bill was issued for the consumption of all residents, which was divided by the 80 apartments. Since 2006, this water bill was also the official document proving the housing of residents. This document also legitimated the residency that, between 2004 and 2012, was considered irregular. The use of water and the bill’s payment were, therefore, experiences necessarily shared by the occupants.

There were several conflicts around the payment of water bills. Samuel was in charge of collecting 8 reais ($1.50 USD) from each family. Some of the residents would go to Samuel, deliver the money, and they would receive a written receipt proving the payment. Others did not have money for it, and there were those that refused to pay because they thought that water supply should be provided by the state. This dynamic, which changed every month, made Samuel and all those in charge of collecting to create varied strategies in order to receive the money. Due to the uncertainties of informal work, it was not rare for collectors to keep the money collected for their own use, delaying payment of the shared water bills. Such actions generated conflicts, accusations, and new groups of people who refused to pay for the water. Finally, everyone knew that by the tenth day of each month, Samuel would have approximately R$650 ($120 USD) in cash at his home. This made him and his home vulnerable and, frequently, collectors’ houses were robbed.

Invasion, Dangers and Silences

2012                                                                                   2013
Property Regularization                                                  Traffickers’ Invasion

Following eight years of struggle, in 2012, the residents won the juridical dispute for property regularization.[4] At that time, the city center of Rio de Janeiro was going through a “revitalization” for the World Cup and the Olympic Games. Several poor families were being compulsorily removed to peripheral areas of the city. In this context, having legal guarantees to remain in the building was a broadly celebrated victory. However, in 2013, members of the Comando Vermelho invaded the building and installed a base for dealing drugs, placing the occupation back in illegality. The residents tried to reverse the situation, without any success. Military police conspired with the invasion. Initially, they facilitated the building’s invasion and, after that, they took the “arrego” weekly at the drug selling base. Openly facing two armed forces was too dangerous for the occupation’s residents.[5] & [6]

Right after the invasion, young local traffickers brought other families to live in the building. To do so, they evicted old residents from their apartments.  Being aware that the receipts for water payments were done manually by the building’s collector, and that they were the documents that allowed property regularization by state institutions, members of Comando Vermelho tried to take them in order to legitimize the residency of these new families. In doing so they would guarantee the legality of residency to the new residents while inserting these families in their loyalty network.

To protect Samuel and the receipts, his mother, Leonor, began a silent battle. She and other women from the building began watching the drug traffickers, and communicating via WhatsApp, deleting messages right after they were sent, in order to inform Samuel when the young dealers were around. This micro-strategy allowed Samuel to escape traffickers and their threats. As months passed, swoops from Comando Vermelho members became less frequent and, following a military police operation, the local traffic leader was murdered. After this episode, traffickers’ attempts to take the receipts ended. 

The Construction Work

In September 2015, members of Comando Vermelho evicted the owner of one of the commercial establishments next to the occupation and invaded the building. To take water to the property, young local traffickers planned their infrastructure project. When pipes, cement and sand bags started to arrive at the building, Leonor, Samuel and other residents started to exchange information, talking to each other in corridors or via WhatsApp, attempting to understand what was going on. Through gossip and rumors, they realized that their access to water could be in danger. They found out that the objective of the group was to take water from the occupation’s cistern in order to supply the commercial property, which became a place for selling drugs.

Leonor, with other women, tried to avoid the situation. She texted me via WhatsApp asking to contact activist lawyers for help. At the time, I contacted and had meetings with lawyers from public defenders from Defensoria Pública do Estado Rio de Janeiro, specifically those who worked at the Núcleo de Terras e Habitação (Property and Land Center) and at the Núcleo de Direitos Humanos (Human Rights Center). At the meetings, I explained the complexity of the matter to the lawyers. However, without being able to denounce what happened to the military police and with the possibility of violent retaliations against the residents, we couldn’t find solutions to the problem.

On 2 November, 2015, the work to transfer water from the occupation’s cistern to the new drug selling point was done. As the water that entered the cisterna was accounted for the building’s meter, all the water consumed by the commercial establishment became debt for the occupation’s residents. Who would collect the water consumption debt from the armed members of Comando Vermelho? With no way out, the residents saw the water bill debt rise and compromise their domestic budgets even more.


Pipe, June 2020. Picture taken by Samuel, sent via WhatsApp.

The battles over housing to which the urban poor are subjected are, very often, invisible to outside gazes and unthinkable even for those who live in these spaces. Observing the agency of Leonor and Samuel in the interstices of the powers of the state and drug gangs helps us comprehend how the relations and confrontations that ensured the occupation’s continuity were fashioned. Centring our analyses on the agencies of common people to ensure the supply of water reveals the power structures that make up urban life and allows us to think about how inequalities are present in daily life. I argue, therefore, that an “urban order” can be produced through the control and distribution of a vital resource like water, but that we can broaden this insight to infrastructures in general (Pierobon 2018). Exploring the quotidian uncertainty with which water is accessed by those inhabiting the “margin of the state” (Das and Pole 2004) tells us how infrastructures are not neutral: much the opposite, they are embedded in power hierarchies that simultaneously reinforce and relocate the poor between the legal, the illegal and the illicit. Analysing infrastructures in the tangle of relations helps us in the work of “making the ordinary appear” (Das 2007) and re-poses the question of the production of life in the cities by other means. The paths that the residents of the Nelson Mandela Occupation made to access water are, therefore, useful for us to think about how these populations concretely experience cities in which infrastructures are at the centre of disputes.

Camila Pierobon is an anthropologist and post-doctoral researcher at the Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento (CEBRAP), with a scholarship by FAPESP (Processo:18/15928-2). Her research analyzes the daily life of women who live in territories controlled by masculine armed groups in the city of Rio de Janeiro. E-mail:


[1] I’d like to thank for the comments by Antonia McGrath, Francesca Pilo’, Mariana Cavalcanti, Marcella Araujo, Patrícia Birman, Gabriel Feltran, Frank Müller and Marcos Campos. This work is the product of discussions realized by the Grupo de Estudos sobre Infraestrutura Urbana, organized by the Grupo Casa (IESP/UERJ) and by the Urbano – Laboratório de Estudos da Cidade (UFRJ). The text was inspired by the work of Shaylih Muehlmann “Clandestine Infrastructures: Illicit Connectivities in the US-Mexico Borderlands” (2019).

[2] State Company for Water and Sewage, Companhia Estadual de Águas e Esgotos (CEDAE), public company that supplies the city of Rio de Janeiro.

[3] Social Fare is a benefit offered by CEDAE and the government of the state of Rio de Janeiro that subsidizes part of the provision of water for families of low income.

[4] Property Regularization for Social Interest, Regularização Fundiária de Interesse Social, is a group of juridical measures that guarantees the right of having residency legalized to families of low income – that occupied for a specific period of time, prescribed by law, public or private areas for the construction of their houses.

[5] Arrego is the local name given to the bribe paid by traffickers to military police officers in Rio de Janeiro.

[6] For an analysis about the invasion of the occupation by drug traffickers see: Birman, Fernandes e Pierobon (2014).

Works Cited

Anand, Nikhil. 2017. Hydraulic City: Water and Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. “Housing and Hope”. Places Journal.

Birman, Patrícia; Fernandes, Adriana; Pierobon, Camila. 2014. “Um emaranhado de casos: tráfico de drogas, estado e precariedade em moradias populares.” Mana 20(3): 431-460.

Das, Veena. 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Das, Veena; Poole, Deborah. 2004. “State and Its margins: Comparative Ethnographies”. In Veena Das and Deborah Poole, eds., Anthropology in the Margins of the State. Pp.3-34. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Lancione, Michele; McFarlane, Colin. 2016. “Infrastructural Becoming: Sanitation and the (Un)Making of Life at the Margins”. In Andres Blok and  Ignacio Farías, eds., Urban Cosmopolitics: agencements, assemblies, atmospheres (Questioning Cities). Pp. 45-62. New York: Routledge.

Muehlmann, Shaylih. 2019. “Clandestine Infrastructures: Illicit Connectivities in the US-Mexico Borderlands”. In Kregg Hetherington, ed., Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene. Pp. 45-65. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pierobon, Camila. 2018. Tempos que duram, lutas que não acabam: o cotidiano de Leonor e sua ética de combate. Tese de Doutorado. UERJ.

Pilo’, Francesca, 2020. “Material Politics: Utility Documents, Claims‐Making and Construction of the ‘Deserving Citizen’ in Rio de Janeiro”. City & Society 32(1): 71-92.

Ranganathan, Malini. 2014. “’Mafias’ in the Waterscape: Urban Informality and Everyday Public Authority in Bangalore”. Water Alternatives 7(1): 80-105.

Simone, AbdouMaliq. 2018. Improvised Lives: Rhythms of Endurance in an Urban South. Medford: Polit Press.

Telles, Vera. 2010. A cidade nas fronteiras do legal e ilegal. Belo Horizonte: Argvmentvm.

von Schnitzler, Antina. 2016. Democracy’s infrastructure: techno-politics and protest after apartheid. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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