Prison No Problem for Rio’s Militia Leaders

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One of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest paramilitary leaders is still commanding his group from prison, according to reports. This calls into question the effectiveness of the government’s campaign against the militias, now one of the main instigators of the violence in the city.

Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported that the leadership of Ricardo Teixeira da Cruz, known as “Batman,” has not been weakened since his imprisonment two years ago. He apparently continues to give orders to his organization, the Justice League (Liga da Justiça) by means of messages passed to visitors, which are then read out at the group’s meetings.

The fact that Teixeira da Cruz is able to exert his authority from a maximum security prison hundreds of miles from his gang’s base of operations in Rio suggests a big problem for the authorities’ anti-militia policy, which is focused on arresting top level gang leaders.

Rio’s paramilitary organizations emerged as a serious threat in late 2006, when they seized control of many zones of the city from drug traffickers. They were formed by police and favela-dwellers to combat violent drug gangs such as Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and Friends of Friends (Amigos dos Amigos) in areas with little or no state presence. The militias have close ties with law enforcement. Teixeira da Cruz, like many such leaders, is a former member of the military police.

A study released by Rio de Janeiro University in 2009 found that the number of the city’s favelas under the control of these vigilante groups had increased four-fold between 2005 and 2008. By that year, they had gained control of around a third of the most violent areas of the city.

The militas have taken over the functions of the state in many of the shanty towns in west Rio, levying sales taxes, providing bootleg cable television and Internet services, supplying cooking gas cylinders, and running unlicensed public transport.

These businesses are highly profitable, often more so than the drug trade, according to the authors of the Rio University report. In some cases, however, these anti-drug militias have themselves moved into the drug business as an extra source of funds. They try to exert social control over the population, and are known to use brutal methods including torture and massacres to maintain order.

In response to the growing power and brutality of the militias, the state government set up a Parliamentary Investigation Commission (Comissão Parlamentar de Inquerito – CPI) in 2008 to report on the development of the militias and their links with the government. This has resulted in a string of arrests of top officials, including city councilors, high level military police officers, and state legislators. A December 2009 Human Rights Watch report noted that Rio authorities had taken “significant steps” since the publication of the CPI’s findings, with the arrest of more than 200 people on suspicion of being militia members — a vast increase from the five people arrested for militia activity in 2006.

One recent high-profile arrest took place on April 13, when city councilor Luiz Ferreira da Silva was detained on suspicion of heading a paramilitary group active in west Rio. He had reportedly been using his government office to organize the gang’s activities, exploiting his access to voter registrations and personal data on local residents.

Ferreira da Silva’s group was allegedly plotting to kill a number of officials, including Rio state lawmaker Marcelo Freixo, who heads the CPI. Speaking to O Globo, the congressman warned that the paramilitary groups are much more organized than their drug trafficking rivals, and have not been greatly weakened by the government policy of going after key leaders like Teixeira da Cruz.

Not only do the militia leaders evidently continue to run their operations from jail, but their capture does not seem to have much impact on the organizations’ hold on their territory. Freixo has called on the government to clamp down on the groups’ revenue sources and send the new Pacifying Police Units (Unidades de Policia Pacificadora – UPPs) into militia-controlled areas, rather than just targeting high-profile commanders. Human Rights Watch likewise commented in its report that although the government crackdown has weakened some big groups, smaller ones continue to operate with impunity as they are not priority targets for the authorities.

InSight has observed a similar dynamic at work in other settings, notably the evolution of Colombia’s drug market in recent decades, which continued undaunted by the killings of top level capos such as Pablo Escobar. The failure of current government policy in Mexico to make a dent in violence, despite the takedown of some of the biggest names in the narcotics trade, is another example of the shortcomings of focusing on gang leaders at the expense of more integrated strategies.

A better method is to hit criminal groups where it hurts, by targeting the illegal enterprises that keep them in business. Providing affordable and legitimate gas, transport and Internet to Rio’s favelas could undercut much of militia groups’ revenue stream. Working in this way to reassert government control and legitimacy in militia territory would likely do more to pacify Rio than simply throwing gang leaders in jail.

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