Are Police-Run Militias Spreading Across Brazil?

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Warnings that militias made up of police may have been responsible for dozens of murders during recent police strikes in Bahia, north Brazil, draw attention to the spread of these illegal groups beyond Rio de Janeiro.

State police in Bahia went on strike in February to demand better pay. At least 3,000 officers joined in, initiating a 12-day stand off with federal forces, who began policing the streets. Some 181 people were killed in greater Salvador, the state’s capital, in the ensuing chaos, which is more than double the city’s murder rate for the same period in January. A disturbing pattern emerged in the killings: some 45 of the victims were bound and shot in the head with high-caliber weapons. Despite recent assurances to the contrary by the state’s public security secretary, an official from the state’s civil police, the investigative arm of law enforcement, suggested militias could have taken advantage of the strike to kill with impunity. The civil police has opened an inquiry into the issue of militias in Bahia.

A widely-cited 2011 report by Rio newspaper O Globo· identifies Bahia as having one of the most serious problems with militias, who control 12 neighborhoods of Salvador. According to the·O Globo report, the Salvador militias “exploit alternative forms of transportation and the distribution of Internet, cable television, and gas services. The modus operandi is similar to Rio’s paramilitary groups.”

The vast majority of coverage of Brazilian militias deals with Rio de Janeiro. However, the Bahia police strike has drawn attention to militias elsewhere in the country, with some reports suggesting that militias are spreading throughout Brazil.·The O Globo report found that militias — “paramilitary groups armed and led by public agents of the security forces” — are present in 11 of Brazil’s 27 states.

This trend mirrors shifts in patterns of violence in the country, with crime rates falling in São Paulo and Rio, the historical centers of crime, and rising in traditionally more peaceful places, according to a 2012 study by São Paulo think tank the Sangari Institute. Many of the states mentioned in O Globo’s report saw huge jumps in homicide rates between 2000 and 2010. These included Bahia, which saw a rise of 300 percent, Para with 252 percent, Alagoas with 160, Paraiba with 150, and Piaui, Minas Gerias and Ceara all with more than 60.

In this same period, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo’s homicide rates dropped 57 and 80 percent, respectively.

While militias will not be the only driver of the rise in violence in the states listed in the report, these illegal groups are known to be responsible for a high percentage of murders in cities where they have a presence. One recent report found that militias were responsible for more homicides in Rio than any other category, for example drug trafficking, or crimes of passion.

A large part of the falling murder rates in Rio and São Paulo is connected to security drives against militias — Rio authorities have cracked down on corrupt police as well as drug traffickers, arresting more than 600 in the last five years for suspected ties to militias. Rio was the birthplace of innovative policing models like the Police Special Operations Battalion and the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs). Another factor that may be important is pay rates for police. São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest state, gave its police a 30 percent pay hike in 2011, which could play a part in discouraging them from illegal activity.

Bahia, on the other hand, has not promised a comparable payhike. With the exception of Pernambuco, those states with large increases in violence in the 2000s were those with lower levels of wealth. While Brazil’s richest cities saw improvements in safety, its poorest saw homicide rates rise. Poverty is clearly a major driver of all types of violent crime, but could also spur militias by driving down police morale, with meagre salaries pushing those in poorer states to join militias.

While these militias likely do not form national networks (their money-making operations appear to be concentrated at the local level), they share common traits like a focus on extortion, and ties to the security forces. There is some evidence of militia groups being active outside their home cities. In 2011 a man who testified against militias in Rio De Janeiro survived an attempt on his life in Minas Gerais, some 200 kilometers away.

Due to militias’ infiltration of law enforcement, cracking down on them presents big challenges across the country. Superior Court official Eliana Calmon said corrupt police could be responsible for the bulk of violence against judges in Brazil. Judge Patricia Acioli, a longtime opponent of Rio militias, was gunned down outside her home in August last year. While at least two dozen policemen have been arrested in connection with the incident, this brutal killing serves as a warning for judges — and others — willing to challenge militias.

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