Brazil’s judges living in fear of organized crime violence

. Mar 02, 2020
Brazil's judges living in fear of organized crime violence Montage using photo by Fellip Agner/Shutterstock

On February 12, Brazilian journalist Léo Veras was assassinated by masked hitmen at his home in the Paraguayan border town of Pedro Juan Caballero. Mr. Veras—who ran a news website covering stories about the drug trade—became the tenth journalist assassinated in the Brazil-Paraguay border region since 1991. While the case raised questions about press freedoms in South America, it also shed light on a wider issue: the threat posed by organized crime to journalists, activists, and judges.


to the National Justice Council (CNJ)—a body that acts as a watchdog for the Brazilian judicial system—at least 110 judges are currently under threat of violence from criminal organizations, and most of these individuals have a bounty on their heads.</p> <p>Many of these threatened judges live in conditions that could essentially be described as captivity, being unable to come and go as they please and only leaving the relative safety of their homes when flanked by armed men. That is the reality of former federal judge Odilon de Oliveira, who has lived under police protection since 1998 when drug gangs made an attempt on his life.</p> <p>Since then, the Federal Police has discovered a dozen plots to assassinate Mr. Oliveira, from crude plans to break into his home to sophisticated poisoning attempts.</p> <p>For over 30 years, Mr. Oliveira served as a federal judge in Mato Grosso do Sul, the Center-West state which is a strategic location for organized crime gangs smuggling drugs over the border from Paraguay and Bolivia. Known as the &#8220;<a href="">hillbilly route</a>&#8221; for drug trafficking in Brazil, cocaine is then transported to the Southeast of the country to supply the big consumer market of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, or to be shipped to North Africa and Europe. During Mr. Oliveira&#8217;s time on the bench, he was responsible for the arrest of over 100 criminals linked to international drug trafficking.&nbsp;</p> <p>His cases made him famous in legal circles, and Mr. Oliveira left the court in 2018 for a failed run at being elected state governor. Since retiring from law, he lost his government-sanctioned security detail and now relies on protection from his friends in the police force. &#8220;In August 2018, I was recognized by a former gang member. Luckily, I had three federal marshals who followed me on every campaign trip,&#8221; he says.</p> <p>Without the security of a 24/7 armed escort, Mr. Oliveira has essentially lost any of the social life he once enjoyed. He only leaves his home twice a month. &#8220;The life of a judge who is severe on gangs ends, one way or another. Either they kill you, or you become a sort of hostage.&#8221;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1492299"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>How gangs bully Brazil&#8217;s justice system</h2> <p>Brazil started to monitor threats and protect its judges in 2011, when a judge was shot 21 times in front of her house near Rio de Janeiro. The assailants were police officers with links to urban paramilitary groups.</p> <p>The latest data from the CNJ shows that for every 1,000 judges in Brazil, seven are under threat of assassination. Two-thirds of cases happen away from big urban centers, where the presence of the state is weaker. The most critical situations occur in the states of Alagoas, Roraima, Tocantins, Rondônia, Acre, Pará, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro, and Amazonas.</p> <p>There, the rate of threatened judges is at least twice as high as the national average.</p> <p>In many cases, judges simply opt out of the confrontation. That was the case of judge Adelmar Pimenta da Silva, who worked as a state magistrate in Tocantins. In 2009, he ordered the arrest of members of a state-wide drug gang. When the police thwarted a plan to kidnap Mr. Silva&#8217;s four-year-old son, he decided to request a transfer to a small-claims court, covering domestic disputes that do not require trials.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1492335"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>How judges are protected (and how they lose protection)</h2> <p>The CNJ is currently the body which protects judges across Brazil. In 2010, it ordered that regional courts must employ measures to keep their judges safe, such as installing surveillance cameras and metal detectors in courthouses, creating committees to assess threats against public servants, as well as establishing a state fund to finance protection measures. By 2017, over 80 percent of Brazilian courts had installed such committees.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/1492398"><script src=""></script></div> <p>In 2017, the CNJ created the Institutional Security Department, which tracks and organizes data about judges under threat. The department launched a personal guide for officials on how to act in dangerous situations—including instructions on how to behave when held at gunpoint.</p> <p>In August 2019, Congress passed a bill to create the figure of &#8220;<a href="">faceless judges</a>,&#8221; which allows magistrates in organized crime cases to request an anonymous panel to decide on matters such as arrests, sentences, and prison transfers. State courts in Rio de Janeiro were among the first to employ this mechanism, with 21 of its judges currently under 24/7 police protection.</p> <p>But while the government provides active judges with escorts and protection, this security goes away as soon as they retire or resign. Odilon de Oliveira says the reality of the situation &#8220;sounds like a bad joke.&#8221; &#8220;Even after we leave the bench we could be targeted by a gang seeking revenge. When a judge retires, Brazil treats them like an old orange, by simply discarding them. It is just disgusting.&#8221;

Brenno Grillo

Correspondent in Brasília. Journalist since 2012, is especialized in cover Law and Justice. Worked in comunication agencies untill be choosen to be an intern in O Estado de S.Paulo. Also worked in Portal Brasil and political campaigns. His last job was in ConJur, website especialized in Justice news.

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