How armed militias became part of Rio’s everyday life

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rio de janeiro armed militias violence

Armed militias operate in true mafia style. Photo: ABr

It seems ludicrous now, but urban armed militias were once well-regarded in Rio de Janeiro. Originally, these groups were a kind of security patrol unit acting against drug traffickers – and were formed by police officers, firefighters, and prison guards. Even the authorities supported them as a way to fill a void left by the state in gang-dominated favelas.

Some politicians went further, and even headed into armed militias themselves.

The largest militia in Rio de Janeiro was sponsored by a former state congressman and a former Rio city councilor. This group was known as the “Justice League,” and was created back in the 1990s by two former police officers, Aldemar Almeida dos Santos and Ricardo Teixeira Cruz, a.k.a. Batman and Robin.

According to data from 2010, militias dominated 41 percent of Rio’s 1,006 favelas. Meanwhile, 56 percent of them were under the control of drug gangs – and less than 3 percent were controlled by the Pacifying Police Units (UPP), military police bases that have been installed in the heart of favelas since 2008 to curb violence rates.

A parallel state

Unlike criminal organization such as the Red Command, militias didn’t acquire their money from drug trafficking. Instead, they financed themselves by offering “protection” to a community in exchange for money – like the mafia. But militias go further, creating a sort of parallel state within communities. They monopolize services like illegal cable TV, internet, furniture, transportation, water, and gas. Nothing is sold without their blessing – and without getting their cut of the profits.

Militias began to expand in the early 2000s, gaining ground in the western part of Rio de Janeiro and in the poorer suburbs known as Baixada Fluminense. Curiously, this expansion coincided with the implementation of the UPP program. The logic is simple: as drug traffickers lost ground, militias lost their market as protectors against the gangs.

But if the militias emerged as an alternative to gang-dominated favelas, the line between them is now blurred, and militias and drug dealers have learned to coexist. For sociologist José Claudio Souza Alves, militias hold more power today then drug traffickers: “Militias now send drugs on a daily basis, and have partnered up with some cartels,” he told Exame. And they have expanded their reach into the political scene.

In 2012, at least 25 candidates for city council in various cities across Rio de Janeiro state were suspected of connections to militias – and among those, 20 were law enforcement agents. Even PSOL, the left-wing party known for its fight against militias, expelled a candidate from its ranks in 2012 for a connection to militias.

During the 2010 election, a 2007 video surfaced that featured then-governor Sérgio Cabral (the same who is now in jail after multiple corruption and money laundering convictions) fraternizing with two militia leaders. These men, Jerônimo and Natalino Guimarães, were later sentenced to 10 years in a maximum-security prison for criminal association.

2008 Congressional Hearings Committee

The friendly relationship between politicians and militiamen began to sour in 2008, when a group tortured two reporters (and their driver) from the Rio-based newspaper O Dia. They were investigating the ties between armed militias and candidates for that year’s municipal election.

After that, over 1,100 militiamen were put behind bars – including 219 police officers and one state congressman. In 2008, Rio’s State Congress concluded a Hearings Committee that investigated the operations of urban militias. The committee, presided over by state congressman Marcelo Freixo, ended up indicting over 250 people.

marcelo freixo cpi 2008

Rio’s state congressman Marcelo Freixo. Photo: Oscar Cabral/Div.

Until recently, however, holding a part-time job in the militia was not a crime. While part-timers could be indicted for crimes committed individually, forming a militia was perfectly legal. That changed in September 2012, when Congress approved a law criminalizing such organizations.

But little has been done to curb militias’ power in Rio. The city is under federal intervention, with the army currently operating as law enforcement. Curiously, no militia-controlled area has been bothered in over a month since the intervention was undertaken by the federal administration.

During the 2016 municipal election in Rio de Janeiro, militias were connected to at least five politically driven murders. And they have been suspected of having ordered the assassination of Rio’s city councilwoman Marielle Franco on March 14. She was shot five times, a crime that has all the characteristics of an assassination. Franco was an outspoken critic of militias and abusive policemen.

Her assassination has drawn international attention to Rio’s problem with violence, and Time magazine went as far as to call Franco an international icon for human rights. Let’s hope that her tragic death may serve as a spark to promote change.

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About the author

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Journalist and researcher at the Ph.D. program in Human Rights of University of Deusto, Spain.