South America

The men who terrorise Rio

People in Rio de Janeiro gathered in April to protest at the site where politician Marielle Franco and driver Anderson Pedro Gomes were killed a month earlier Source: Leo Correa / Associated Press

More than four months have passed since the assassination of Marielle Franco, a human rights defender who was a member of Rio’s City Council. But the killing remains unsolved. The most probable hypothesis, according to Brazil’s public security minister, Raul Jungmann, is that local militias were behind her death.

Militias in Brazil are different from paramilitary groups in other countries. Their origins here can be traced back to the 1970s, the days of the military dictatorship, when off-duty police officers formed death squads to execute criminals and political opponents, according to José Cláudio Souza Alves, a sociologist who studies the groups.

In their current form, militias were established in Rio de Janeiro in the late ’90s and early 2000s, under the pretext that they were protecting residents from drug traffickers. Although more civilians are joining, the militias have been dominated by active-duty and retired police officers, who essentially assume control of suburban slums, or favelas, under the guise of defending them.

Once they have a foothold in the community, militia members extort money from residents and shopkeepers (in other words, they demand payments that are partly for protection against themselves). They also control local unlicensed public transportation, since city buses are scarce or nonexistent in remote areas. They offer illegal internet and television connections, charge commissions on real estate deals, and control the supply of gas and water. In the Gardênia Azul favela, for example, militia members collect money from street vendors and even popcorn carts.

It’s a kind of mafia, with Brazilian peculiarities.

One of them is irony. After careful deliberation with their accountants (at least that’s what I imagine), and in the name of business diversification, some militias have entered the field of drug trafficking. Others have decided to work with their former rivals from drug gangs, selling them weapons and recruiting members from their ranks. In 2015, according to the newspaper O Dia, a militia “sold” the area of Morro do Jordão to a drug gang for three million Brazilian reais, or about $800,000. So much for the righteous excuse of vigilante justice.

According to the news website G1, two million people in the Rio metropolitan area live in territories controlled by militias. A 2013 academic report concluded that of the roughly 1,000 favelas in the city, 45 percent are controlled by militia organizations and 37 percent by drug gangs. The main difference is that police brutality is less common in militia-controlled neighborhoods, probably because those groups have strong ties to the official state security apparatus.

Another feature that they share with the Italian mafia is that they have infiltrated political institutions. In 2008, Ms. Franco was an aide on a parliamentary commission that investigated the involvement of politicians in Rio’s militias, whose findings led to the arrest of roughly a dozen members of the City Council and two state congressmen. The commission had found that during election years, militia groups try to field their own candidates for office, and threaten voters and even kill competitors. In 2016, at least six candidates running for City Council were executed by militia members in the area of Baixada Fluminense.

Which bring us back to the militias’ original configuration as extralegal death squads. Their cold-blooded concern for public safety has been converted into a businesslike approach to protecting their criminal assets. According to Rio’s Homicide Division, militia-controlled neighborhoods generally have the highest homicide rates.

They are suspected of killing all kinds of people who happened to cross their path: the administrative director of a newspaper, a van driver who refused to pay a toll, two men who deliver gas cylinders, many random witnesses of their crimes, a man who complained that militiamen were recklessly shooting in the air, several homosexuals, the president of a samba school, a member of their own group who did a live transmission of a favela invasion, teenagers caught smoking marijuana, and even a bird thief. They have tortured two newspaper reporters and their driver. They also kill within their ranks when necessary: In the last 10 years, 25 of the 226 members of militia groups who were criminally indicted in the 2008 investigation that Ms. Franco worked on have been killed.

According to the civil police, the most powerful Rio militia, Liga da Justiça (Justice League), raises an average of 300 million reais, or about $80 million, a year through extortion and other unlawful activities. Today, militias are growing faster than other kinds of criminal organizations, also according to the head of Rio’s civil police. They usually exploit distinct black-market niches and concentrate on areas different from those of the drug gangs, so we could say that both ventures are complementary.

Drug gangs dominate favelas near the city center, the airport, the harbor and the main highways, from where it’s easier to control the distribution of arms and drugs. Militias are entrenched in more peripheral areas (like Baixada Fluminense) where they profit from the lack of basic services such as public transportation, water and gas distribution, internet and cable television.

That said, drug gangs and militias have different opponents as well. While the natural enemies of drug overlords are honest police officers and sensible legislators who can understand drug abuse as a public health issue, and thus support the legalization of drugs, a thorn in the side of militia leaders is a politician who calls for more government presence and better public services in the outskirts of town.

Either way, favela residents are tired of getting caught in the crossfire between heavily armed policemen, militia groups and drug gangs — many of them claiming to defend the community itself. The residents don’t need that kind of protection. They don’t need the presence of politicians who legislate for their own interests. They need to be seen as citizens who deserve basic rights, and not as business opportunities. Marielle Franco knew that.

Click Here to watch the full episode: Children Caught in the Crossfire