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Rio de Janeiro’s militias: a parallel power in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Americas politics & policy

Rio de Janeiro’s militias: a parallel power in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Death of leftwing politician Marielle Franco focused attention on the growth of militias — to the president’s discomfort


She was the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Brazilian politics. An articulate and charismatic public speaker, Marielle Franco was a city councillor from the leftwing PSOL party whose campaigning against corruption and police violence had made her a rising star of Rio de Janeiro politics — an unlikely achievement for a black, gay woman from one of the city’s sprawling favelas.

On the evening of March 14 last year, Franco — who was known universally as Marielle — was shot in her car in the centre of Rio, along with her driver Anderson Gomes.

Almost a year later, investigators finally arrested two men suspected of her murder — both of whom were themselves former police officers.

Hours later, as police were searching an apartment in a northern suburb of Rio owned by an associate of one of the suspects, they made a surprising discovery. In a storeroom, in sealed boxes apparently straight from the factory, were the unassembled parts of 117 M16 automatic rifles. It was the biggest haul of illicit weapons ever seized in Brazil.

Rio has long been famous for the drug gangs who have made parts of the city no-go areas for outsiders including the police. Franco’s killing has focused attention on a different and parallel menace — Rio’s milícias, the murderous paramilitary gangs led by serving and former police officers that have emerged over the past two decades as a threat to public security and to the integrity of the state. Investigators believe the two men arrested and who have not been charged were members of the Escritório do Crime — the “Office of Crime” — a militia gang of contract killers.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro believes the police should be given more freedom to shoot back against suspected criminals © AFP

Although the detective leading her murder investigation suggested the alleged killers may have acted out of personal hatred for leftwing politicians, many others disagree and believe Franco was murdered because she had challenged some of the business interests of Rio’s militias.

“Marielle’s murder was a political contract killing, a sophisticated crime ordered by powerful people,” says Marcelo Freixo, a PSOL federal congressman from Rio who led a team of activists of which Franco was part. “We don’t want some nobody to be given the blame. We want to know who ordered it and why.”

The murder of Franco is also raising uncomfortable questions for Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president. Longstanding figures in Rio politics, Mr Bolsonaro and his sons have a history of associating with people close to known and suspected militia members.

Flavio Bolsonaro, left, with his brother Carlos © AFP

Moreover, the spotlight on the militias clashes with the security plan that Mr Bolsonaro is proposing and the philosophy that helped him get elected. The president believes the police should be given more freedom to shoot back against suspected criminals. “We need to urgently get rid of the ideology that defends criminals and criminalises the police,” he said at his January inauguration. However, the death of Franco suggests that the root of at least some of the violence that scars so many Brazilian cities is the blind eye that the authorities cast over militias that act as an almost parallel state.

“The militias operate in places with a vacuum of power, an omission of the state,” says Simone Sibilio, head of a unit in the Rio state public prosecutor’s office investigating the militias and their involvement in Franco’s murder.

She likens their activities to those of the Italian mafia, particularly in the way they substitute and co-opt elements of the state. “They have public agents and politicians [working on their behalf],” Ms Sibilio says. “So far, we have arrested the coalface workers,” she adds. “We need to arrest the leaders.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro arrives for the showing of a documentary on his father's government in Washington on March 16 © Reuters

Firepower, murder, organised crime and politics: the characteristics that define the militias have become more destabilising since they first emerged towards the end of the last century.

Their origins help explain how rampant lawlessness can flourish in the surroundings of a sophisticated, modern city that only three years ago hosted the Olympics. Rio’s first militia can be traced to groups of migrant construction workers who settled with their families on no man’s land to the west of the city while they were building the apartment blocks and luxury condominiums that formed the upmarket seafront neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca.

As their community grew, the favela of Rio das Pedras took shape with little intervention or interest from the state. With no formal police presence, security was provided by justiceiros, or vigilante gunmen. The favela expanded in the 1980s and 1990s and, as parts of it acquired the look of a regular city neighbourhood, police officers living there banded together to take over from the vigilantes, expelling, beating and killing drug dealers and other people they considered undesirables. They presented themselves to the local population as a peaceful alternative to the drug gangs.

“That’s where the behaviour of the militiamen began, behind Tijuca in Rio das Pedras,” says Ubiratan Angelo, a former Rio state chief of police. “They used to say, no criminals live here — where the police live there’s no place for bandits. Then they began to dominate local businesses, the market for alternative transport and all the rest.”

Weapons, equipment and money found at the home of an associate of former policeman Ronnie Lessa on March 12 © AFP

At first, militias offered protection to local businesses at a modest price many were willing to pay. From there to extortion was a short step, and soon militias were selling protection against themselves. They expanded into other services: informal public transport, distribution of cooking gas, pirate cable TV, the sale and rental of commercial and residential property, and more.

The most lucrative line of business for the militias has been real estate. Investigators recently found documents at the residents’ association in Rio das Pedras showing that between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the value of every property deal goes to the local militia. They were also involved in the hugely profitable business of land expropriation or grilagem — the fraudulent assignment of property and land deeds.

This was the issue that Franco had been highlighting at the time of her death. Her work to support local residents and their rights to land and property made her a threat to this type of real estate scam.

Almost from the outset, militias dominated local politics in the areas they controlled. “If you have the power, you can tell people, ‘Look, it’s best that you vote for my candidate’,” says Mr Angelo. “That’s how these guys got big. In the city council, in the state legislature, they pass laws that interfere with the public machinery to benefit their activities.”

During the past 20 years, many new militias have been formed beyond Rio das Pedras. A study last year found they were present in 165 favelas and in 37 other city neighbourhoods in greater Rio, areas of the city that are home to a combined population of more than 2m people. They hand out often gruesome and lethal justice designed to set an example, sometimes for criminal behaviour, sometimes for acts of disobedience such as buying cooking gas from the wrong distributor. Their presence haunts the city: an opinion poll last month found that Rio’s residents were more afraid of the militias than of the city’s often brutally violent drugs gangs.

Militias and murders

© Reuters


Value of every property deal that goes to the local militia in Rio das Pedras, according to documents recently found by investigators


Homicides in Brazil in 2017, up from 61,597 in 2016. The murder rate was 30.8 per 100,000 people — up from 29.9 the year before


States in Brazil — Rio Grande do Norte and Acre — with a murder rate above 60 per 100,000 people, making them more dangerous than El Salvador

Fear of rising urban violence was one of the main issues that allowed Mr Bolsonaro to sweep to power from near-obscurity last year. While Brazilians hoped to turn their back on the leftwing Workers’ party (PT), which had overseen a crushing recession in 2015-16 and was involved in a multi-billion-dollar corruption scheme, he also campaigned strongly on a promise to tackle violent crime.

One indication of the failings of security policy in Brazil is the almost complete lack of official crime data. According to the Brazilian Forum for Public Security, Brazil had 63,895 homicides in 2017, by far the biggest national total in the world, and an increase of about 50 per cent in two decades. The homicide rate, at 30.8 per 100,000 people, is five times the global average and 14th worldwide, second only to South Africa among large nations. In two of Brazil’s states it is more than 60, higher than in El Salvador, the world’s most murderous country.

Rio’s militias are far from the only challenge. Rio is also home to the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), a brutally violent gang born in the state’s inhumane prisons whose members run much of the city’s drugs trade. Other prison “factions” compete for power in Brazil’s 27 states. Most prominent nationwide is the PCC of São Paulo, which has evolved into a sophisticated organisation running guns and drugs across Latin America and to Africa, Europe and the US.

Battles between the prison gangs horrified the country two years ago, when warring factions displayed severed heads and buckets full of their opponents’ hearts on social media.

Mr Bolsonaro has vowed to tackle such violence head-on. His campaign promises included arming the population and giving police greater licence to shoot to kill — something they already do with impunity at an estimated rate of 5,000 a year. In office, he has called on Sérgio Moro, the prosecuting judge who led an investigation into corruption under the PT that has put dozens of business people and politicians in jail — including Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president. As justice minister, Mr Moro presented a package of “anti-crime” bills to Congress last month, including a measure that would allow judges to dismiss prosecutions for use of excessive force “if it results from excusable fear, surprise or violent emotion”.

Since Mr Bolsonaro took office in January, police violence has increased. In one operation against warring drug dealers in a Rio favela last month, they killed at least 13 people, at least nine of whom residents claim were executed while trying to surrender.

Rodrigo Amorim is a Rio state deputy for the PSL, Mr Bolsonaro’s party, and a political ally of Flávio Bolsonaro, his eldest son. He praises the police action.

“In my view, it was an extremely successful operation,” he says. “Necessarily, you need confrontation. Of course, in confrontation some innocents are killed, but we need to give the state back the territory controlled by the factions.”

Mr Amorim gained national fame during the election campaign when he broke in two a fake street sign bearing Franco’s name that had been put up by her supporters in the centre of Rio. He takes issue with the suggestion that Franco, who campaigned for the rights of Rio’s poor, was also campaigning for the rights of its police officers, 70 of whom were killed last year.

“This human rights crew, they have started to see the bandit, the criminal, as a subject with rights, as some kind of poor creature marginalised by society,” he says.

Daniel Cerqueira, an economist and author of a study of the causes and consequences of crime in Brazil, says the Bolsonaro-Moro plan runs contrary to policies that appear to have worked in parts of the country. He points to dramatic success in fighting crime in some Brazilian states this century, under programmes based on seven common elements: dedicated leadership, co-ordinated action, investigation, disarmament, conflict resolution, targeting crime bosses rather than arresting petty criminals, and funding youth services in favelas and other deprived areas.

“These experiences shine a light and offer some hope that things can get better, without turning to the barbarity that’s going on today,” he says.

That “barbarity”, says Mr Cerqueira, includes a policy of repression and neglect, in which poor areas become lawless territories where the police enter only in violent raids, so that “the communities hate the police and the police hate the communities”. He says these problems will only be exacerbated by the new government’s policies.

Former police officers Ronnie Lessa and Elcio Vieira de Queiroz were arrested for the murder of Marielle Franco

This month’s arrests brought Franco’s murder one step nearer to closure a year after her death. But there are fears that the investigation into her murder may itself have been corrupted by the militias’ reach into the Rio state police.

Last November, after months of resistance from Rio’s authorities, Raul Jungmann, then minister of public security, installed a federal police investigation into the local murder investigation in Rio. It is expected to report next month.

“It is the only chance to find out who ordered her killing,” he says. “We need to pull the thread of this satanic alliance between crime and political corruption that has been shielded up to now.”

Connections of Bolsonaro clan invite scrutiny

Jair Bolsonaro has in the past suggested Rio’s militias be legalised. Last year he told a radio interviewer, “Look, there are people who support the militias . . . In places where the militias are paid, there’s no violence.”

There is no suggestion that Mr Bolsonaro or his sons had any involvement in Marielle Franco’s shooting. But one reason her murder has created problems for the president is the web of connections between the Bolsonaro clan and people involved in or close to the militias.

In 2011 Patricia Acioli, a judge who fought the militias and put several members in jail, was murdered. Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s eldest son, tweeted that “the absurd and gratuitous way she humiliated police officers” had made her many enemies. Until November, Flávio — then a deputy in the Rio state assembly — employed in his office the wife and mother of Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, a fugitive from justice accused of leading the Escritório do Crime, the militia hit squad believed to have been involved in the murder of Franco. He dismissed the pair when their employment became public.

“Is a criminal’s mother a criminal? Of course not,” says Marcelo Freixo, a federal deputy and campaigner against the militias. “But it has to be explained.” He says the two women had no clear function in Flávio’s office.

Flávio has described local media suggestions that he employed the two as a favour to Mr Nóbrega as defamatory and said the pair had been nominated for their jobs by Fabrício Queiroz, an adviser, former policeman and longtime family friend. Mr Queiroz is under investigation for involvement in a scheme allegedly skimming publicly-funded salaries from phantom employees in the state assembly, which he denies. When the allegations were made public, he went into temporary hiding in Rio das Pedras, home of Rio’s first militia.

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