Political Killings in Rio Raise Fears of Crime Infested Elections

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The head of Brazil’s federal election commission has warned that criminal groups are attempting to influence local politics in the country’s second largest city through a combination of financial coercion and outright violence.

Gilmar Mendes, the president of Brazil’s Superior Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral – TSE), expressed concern on September 8 about a series of politically motivated murders in the Rio de Janeiro area, as well as indications that criminal groups are funding local political campaigns.

“We worry that organized crime participates in the financing of elections and we have concern that organized crime is organized politically. This needs to be the object of concern of all authorities,” Mendes said in comments reported by Brazil’s state-owned news service EBC.

According to Rio’s Civil Police, nearly a dozen politically motivated murders have occurred in the area in the past nine months, including several candidates running for office in municipal elections scheduled for October 2.

Mendes has asked the Federal Police to investigate the assassinations of politicians in the run-up to the elections. A number of the murders have been linked to criminal groups known as “milícias,” or militias, involved in disputes over oil theft in Rio de Janeiro.

InSight Crime has previously reported on ties between militias — vigilante organizations formed by former and current members of state security services, as well as civilians — and politicians in the Rio area.

Despite their involvement in illicit activities like oil theft and extortion, state agents have at times cooperated with or given tacit support to the militias, viewing them as a “lesser evil” than drug trafficking gangs. This has furthered the militias control over many Rio neighborhoods, particularly in the West Zone where some militias have reportedly formed cooperative relationships with drug traffickers.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although Rio’s flagship policing initiative, known as “pacification,” has led to some improvements in citizen security, the series of recent political murders combined with Mendes’ warnings about criminal proceeds financing elections indicate that militias and other criminal groups retain significant sway in the city.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Brazil Militias

Like other criminal groups across the Americas, Rio’s militias appear to have realized that influence over local politics can serve as a valuable resource for continuing their criminal activities. As an anonymous source recently told El País, “When one speaks of politics, one speaks of power, one speaks of money. Militias do not fear the police, but they fear politics and they know that it is the only way to perpetuate themselves.”

A number of experts have argued that breaking the political influence of criminal groups like militias will require more than simply arresting and prosecuting their members; the state must establish institutions that can provide security and basic goods and services to citizens in marginalized communities in order to avoid criminal groups gaining legitimacy by taking over these basic governance functions.

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