Rio de Janeiro Militias Muscle in on Brazil Elections

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Not only have Rio de Janeiro’s violent militia groups dramatically expanded — growing from just six communities in 2004 to 148 today — they have also made their presence felt in the lead-up to this Sunday’s election.

In September, Rio de Janeiro’s Secretary of Public Security (SSP) released something of a bombshell for Brazil crime analysts: the city’s infamous militia groups have expanded dramatically over the past decade.

According to the SSP, since 2004 the number of Rio communities in which these groups operate has grown from just six favelas to 148 today. Authorities also believe that the phenomenon has spread beyond the city, with militias controlling 195 communities in 23 of the 90 municipalities in Rio de Janeiro state.

The trend has become even more relevant during Brazil’s general election season. As journalist Marsilea Gombata wrote in a recent piece for news magazine CartaCapital, there is overwhelming evidence that militias are a political force in Rio. In 2006 to 2008, considered the heyday of militia activity in the city, politicians like then-mayor Cesar Maia openly supported militias as community “self-defense” initiatives.

The most well-known militia group in Rio, the “Justice League,” even managed to get its leaders — the brothers João Guimarães Filho and Natalino Jose Guimarães — elected to city council and the state legislature in 2008, respectively, although they were subsequently arrested on murder charges.

While experts say the militias can no longer operate as openly, they still exert influence over the neighborhoods they control. On top of controlling housing projects and forcing favela residents to pay for “security” and services like gas and electricity at inflated prices, the militias stand to make a windfall off of “selling” their community’s vote to the highest bidders. In exchange for payment, militias intimidate locals into voting for their favored candidate, prohibiting rivals from campaigning there.  

In August, authorities identified 41 areas throughout Rio de Janeiro state where candidates have been intimidated against campaigning for office by criminal groups, though just 16 were specifically tied to militias, as O Globo reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

On Sunday, just as President Dilma Rousseff is facing a runoff against Aecio Neves, voters in Rio state will choose between current Governor Luiz Fernando de Souza — better known locally as “Pezão” — and his challenger, evangelical Bishop Marcelo Crivella. While there’s little difference between their positions on crime policy, the last few months saw Pezão trade barbs with other gubernatorial candidates regarding ties to Rio de Janeiro militias.

In a September 2 debate, for instance, Pezão came under fire from former Governor Anthony Garotinho for alleged  links to illegal militia groups in western Rio de Janeiro. In response, the governor openly shot back at Garotinho, saying that his rival was the one with “notorious” connections to the militia groups. The two continued to exchange similar accusations in following debates, as Noticias R7 noted.

But despite all the attention drawn to militia groups thanks to this year’s political campaigning, there’s been little discussion of the best way to dismantle them once and for all. It is true that police recently conducted a series of arrests meant to stop Justice League operations in a western Rio de Janeiro suburb, Campo Grande. Yet the Justice League has already proven that it’s more than capable of continuing its operations, even with its main leadership behind bars: the militia’s leaders have been in custody for over five year now. It will take more than jailing its leadership to bring down groups like the Justice League.

According to Dr. Ignacio Cano, director of the Rio de Janeiro state university’s (UERJ) Laboratory of Violence Analysis, resolving Rio’s militia problem is made more difficult by the state’s current emphasis on “pacifying” favelas controlled by drug traffickers and street gangs. While presenting his research last month (see Rio on Watch’s helpful write-up), Cano lamented the fact that “there are no strategies in place to combat the militias and take back those areas” under militia control.

Another complication is the make-up of the militias themselves: as networks of off-duty and former security forces, their members occasionally overlap with military police. This means intelligence leaks are a constant risk, making it difficult for investigators to launch surprise operations. And considering how difficult it is to hold Rio police accountable for abuses like extrajudicial executions and disappearances, what some have called a culture of enabling police brutality could also extend to militia members as well, complicating efforts to prosecute them.

In any case, the fact is that Rio’s militias are poised to continue their expansion virtually unhindered. The latest polls suggest that Pezão enjoys a 12-point lead over his rival in the governor’s race. If he wins, there’s little chance he will shake up the current security strategy. While he has promised to establish several new UPPs in the city’s surrounding Baixada Fluminense region and the neighboring city of Niteroi, Pezão has said nothing about a new strategy to fight the spread of militias.

Meanwhile, the SSP’s revised estimate on militia control is just the latest alarming indication that the groups have extended beyond their traditional strongholds in the city’s North and West Zones.  In fact, some analysts believe the militias control far more than the SSP acknowledges.

In December 2013, UERJ urban anthropologist Alba Zaluar and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation researcher Christovam Barcellos released a study suggesting that militias control 454 of the roughly 1,000 favelas located in the city of Rio de Janeiro.  This amounts to 45 percent, compared to 37 percent (370 communities) in the run by drug trafficking gangs, leaving just 18 percent (174) effectively under control of the military police and the UPPs. 

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