The Rise of Rio's Militias

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

ByABC News
June 17, 2008, 7:03 AM

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.