The Rise of Rio's Militias

How police officers have turned criminal in Brazil's most famous city.


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, June 17, 2008 — -- Violence by drug-trafficking factions has been plaguing Rio de Janeiro for over two decades. Many of the victims are under the age of 16.

According to official figures, drug-related violence in Rio kills nearly three times the number of minors every year than in Israel or the Palestinian territories.

Now some fear a new menace is threatening to take hold of the city, in the form of quasi-official militas made up of policemen and firemen — both former and currently serving.

In recent years, the militias have been steadily occupying the city's slums and shanty towns, known as favelas, to help drive away drug traffickers.

Initially this tactic was largely welcomed by residents and was widely seen as effective. But as the militia moved into other activities such as illegally providing cable TV hookups and transportation services, a parallel world is emerging where lawlessness thrives.

And most disturbing, critics say, is that the militias have become just as brutal as the drug traffickers.

Recently a group of journalists who were working undercover in the Batan favela, in western Rio, were captured and tortured by a militia group, who identified themselves as police officers. For over seven hours, they say they were subjected to electric shocks, beatings and suffocation by plastic bags and were made to play a game of Russian roulette.

Two men have since been apprehended. On June 4th, police arrested Davi Liberato de Araujo for participating in militia activities. Araujo has denied taking part in torturing the reporters. This week, a civil police officer, Odinei Fernando da Silva, suspected of being the chief of the Batan Militia turned himself in to the authorities after being on the run.

In the midst of this a political scandal broke when a congressman, Alvaro Lins, was arrested for his alleged role in establishing these criminal entities, an accusation he strongly denies.

Now, security officials are dealing with a more complex problem: the possibility of a potential war between law enforcement officials and gangs in the city's uncontrolled areas.

Rodrigo Pimentel — a retired captain with Rio de Janeiro's elite police force (known as the BOPE),and now writer and filmmaker — has been on the frontlines of Rio's silent but pernicious drug war.

In an interview with ABC News, he explains why Rio has become one of the most violent cities in the world and why the authorities are facing a huge dilemma in bringing the city under control:

What has made the Militias such a huge problem?

Pimentel: The city of Rio has around 1,060 favelas, the greater majority of them are dominated by armed drug-trafficking factions, mainly by the Red Command and the Third Command, two distinct factions. Around 100 of these favelas are dominated by Militias.

Historically the Militias appeared around 10 years ago in the favela of Rio das Pedras, where most of the inhabitants are from Brazil's North East [traditionally the most impoverished part of the country]. They took on the dictatorship of the narco-trafficking gangs and expulsed them from the area.

In the past five years a new phenomenon emerged – Military and Civil police officers and firemen, who lived nearby the favelas, not only expulsed the traffickers but they mounted a protection network. It was a highly idealized notion — people kicking out the bad guys and protecting the residents but it didn't work out.

Within two years, the militias realized that to stay in that area, they needed to generate capital so they decided to exploit the same economic avenues that the traffickers did with the exception of selling cocaine.

They began to control transport illegally, pirating cable TV services, selling gas bottle with a tax on top for profit, controlling the illegal motorcycle taxi services and selling "protection." Also they took a cut from the illegal gambling houses. The trafficker only really concentrated on one economic activity which was selling cocaine.

Why are the business dealings so vital for the militias?

Pimentel: What happens when you have more than one economic activity taking place, it becomes a mafia-style organization which generates more economic power. This raises another situation, a promiscuity, if you will, of state power: you saw the emergence of the police-militia.

This was something that the drug-trafficking gangs never achieved. Although narco-trafficking corrupted the police, the police were always on one side and the trafficker was on the other.

Do the militias pose a bigger threat than the drug trafficking gangs?

Pimentel: Today the militias are a far greater danger than the drug traffickers were in the past 25 years. The militias also practice homicide – it's completely false, this romanticized illusion that they do not kill, so for this reason they need to be dealt with more energetically than the drug trafficking factions.

When you have a police officer who is, by day, an ordinary police officer and by night a militia member you have a symbiosis where the authority of the state combines with criminality.

There is also another issue – the trafficker never "elected," as it were, a political leader. However, in the past five years, the militias helped to elect two local councilors and a state delegate so we know that there are people who have politically profited from them.

So, it is fair to say that the militias are the criminal organization of Rio de Janeiro who managed to accomplish what the trafficker never did. They traffic goods and there is a rigid hierarchy so no in-fighting.

How can they be dealt with?

RP: There is a squad of police officers that deal specifically with the problem of the militias – the Delegacy of Repression of Organized Crime [known as the DRACO] and this year alone they arrested 140 policemen who were affiliated with criminal activities.

It's a really bad situation but it's been worse – under the previous state government the militias existed freely and were even encouraged by the state authorities. It's a dangerous organization armed with grenades and machine guns – some members were expelled from the military police and went to work with the militias.

But they are a natural reaction to the drug-trafficking gangs – the state did not provide therefore the militias decided to occupy the vacuum left by the authorities, so one can blame the negligence of the state for failing to deal with the trafficking factions.

Some people describe what is happening in Rio as a war, saying that the solution must be found in declaring a ceasefire to bring about a resolution in this crisis – do you agree?

RP: It is a state of war — when the police here in Rio conduct an operation there are fatalities, there are war armaments involved, grenades, machine guns etc…

If you're looking for a definition then you could describe it as a low-intensity war by the casualty figures and the engagement of firearms. People also don't just [get] killed by firearms they also die from shrapnel wounds just like U.S. soldiers in Baghdad.

The only thing that is missing here is that there is a lack of ideology but the rest of it, the death tolls, the firearms, the level of engagement, the type of wounds incurred, is characteristic of a war so I accept the logic that there is a state of conflict in Rio de Janeiro and the police will eventually need to function as if they are in a war.

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