In another sign of the escalating armed conflict raging in Rio de Janeiro, a new report reveals that the number of militias that control some of the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods has skyrocketed in the last decade.
According to an investigation by Folha de S. Paulo, the city of Rio has seen a dramatic — and deeply troubling — rise in the number of militias across the city, as well as the neighborhoods under the control of these armed groups.
In 2004, six of the city’s favelas had a strong militia presence, including Santa Cruz in the west, Campo Grande in the northwest and the long-troubled, sprawling Complexo da Maré neighborhood in the northeastern part of the city.
As of 2014, Folha found, militias are present in 148 communities within 28 Rio neighborhoods, according to the state Public Security Secretary. These neighborhoods are all across the city, but the strongest concentrations of militia presence are found in the western and northern sectors, home to many of Rio’s favelas.
The favelas are some of the neighborhoods most affected by militia control. Anthropologist Alba Zaluar, who conducts research on public security at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, estimated in a New York Times interview that as of 2010, militias controlled as much as 45 percent of the city’s favelas — and the number has undoubtedly gone up since then.
Militias — made up of current and former police officers, firefighters, members of the military and the feared military police as well as some civilians — essentially function as a criminal offshoot or parallel shadow arm of state law enforcement structures.
Like many paramilitary groups, the militias originally formed as a response to a lack of security presence in neighborhoods controlled by violent drug gangs, providing “protection” for residents and small businesses being terrorized by the drug dealers.
At first, the new armed groups were even welcomed in some areas, where they were seen as a more predictable counterbalance to the lawless gangs, restoring order and structure to communities. However, after displacing gang members, militias began to take over their old areas of influence and even adopted similar tactics, establishing their own rules, claiming property, extorting residents and business owners for services ranging from water to internet access and threatening, torturing or murdering those who refused to comply.
Militias have also increased their influence in the political realm, pressuring residents of neighborhoods to vote for certain candidates and cultivating close ties with local politicians and law enforcement structures, allowing militia members to escape punishment for the vast majority of the violent crimes they commit.
“Rio is like Chicago in the 1930s,” Rio state prosecutor Jorge Magno Vidal told Folha.
“A tumor called militia”
Militias are nothing new in Rio, which has struggled with issues of law enforcement and human rights abuses by security forces for years. By some estimates, the city has had operating militias for 30 years, but the violence has become especially pronounced in the last decade, as the groups have continued to amass power, territory, weapons and rely on increasingly violent and extreme intimidation tactics, directed not only at residents but also politicians and even members of the judiciary they see as threats to their operations.
In 2011, hours after judge Patrícia Acioli issued arrest warrants for three Rio police officers suspected of killing an unarmed teenager in a favela, a group of armed men showed up at her house and shot her 21 times. The three men, as well as eight other officers, were later arrested in connection with her murder. They, along with other member of Rio’s police force, were already under investigation for allegedly forming a death squad.
In 2011, a judge involved in sentencing three militia members in a murder trial called the militias a “new social cancer” and said residents of the city were “terminal patients with a tumor called militia.”
It is not just the city of Rio that is affected by militias, either. Folha estimates that militias are also operating in 195 communities within 23 of the 90 municipalities in Rio state, including spillover to Niteroí, a city just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. A 2011 investigation by O Globo found that militias were present in at least 11 of Brazil’s 26 states, including Minas Gerais and São Paulo, with especially strong presence in the city of Salvador in northeastern Bahia state.
Local officials say they are cracking down on militias, but the quickly-evolving groups often seem to be one step ahead of the justice system or find ways to twist it to their advantage.
The Folha investiation found that 864 militia members have been sentenced to prison since 2007, but even prison does not seem to deter their operations. According to many sources, notorious militia leader Ricardo Texeira da Cruz, alias ‘Batman,’ continues to issue commands to his organization, the Liga de Justiça (Justice League), despite being sent to prison back in 2009.