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Brazil’s dangerous militias

Anabel Hernandez
September 4, 2019

The criminal "militias" in Brazil are mostly made up of police officers who commit violent crimes and go unpunished in those areas which have been given up by the state. They control more than half of the country. 

Image: picture alliance/dpa/ZUMA Wire/O Globo

The most significant criminal association in Brazil, which also plays an essential role in the international drug trade, is the "First Commando of the Capital" (PCC). 

From the Brazilian government's point of view, however, far more dangerous for the internal stability and security of the country are the paramilitary groups, also referred to as "militias."

According to information from the Brazilian federal police, these militias are made up of public servants from the area of public security: they are members of the police force, the military police, and even the fire brigade, who commit crimes that go unpunished. "The people work for the state and at the same time for organized crime," a senior police officer told me.

Read moreBrazil's cocaine trade leaves widespread violence in its wake

Extortion, gambling, drug and weapons trade

The militias are dedicated to extortion, collecting protection money, controlling the supply of gas, public transport, access to cable television, rented property; they organize illegal gambling, control the drug and weapons trade and even operate illegal mining. According to the federal police, they generate just in Rio de Janeiro a turnover of 100 million dollars (91 million euros) a year. 

In Brazil, the militias are compared to the Mexican drug cartel "Los Zetas." These include an armed group working for the Golf cartel, whose former leader of this criminal organization, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, founded between 2002 and 2003 during its war with the Sinaloa cartel. 

Infografik Präsenz der Milizen in Brasilien DE

The "Zetas" cartel has consisted of an elite troop of highly qualified militias that were sent to Tamaulipas at the end of the 90s to fight the drug trade. The core troop changed sides with criminality. The "Zetas" are responsible for many brutal massacres, including the murder of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010. Although many of its founders were apprehended or murdered, the group still exists in Mexico. 

In Brazil, there is a concern that militias from active, well-trained and equipped, violence-prone public servants are formed. Various militias have been distributed across the country. Through the anonymity in which they operate, it is unknown exactly how many groups there are or how many members it has.

The Brazilian sociologist José Claudio Souza, who sent me a copy of his doctoral thesis from the University of Sao Paulo titled "Baixada Fluminese: Violence in the Development of Power," explained the background of the militias and the phenomenon of violence in the densely populated region Baixada Fluminese in Rio de Janeiro, which has a high murder and poverty rate.

Read moreBrazil nabs notorious cocaine kingpin

Murderers in public office

Anabel Hernandez
Anabel Hernandez

The emergence of the militias, according to Souza, goes back to the time of the military dictatorship in the 1960s, when the military police were all-powerful and formed death squadrons. Finally, some of these killers were elected to political office. It was individuals, who were in a position to build their political careers "based on fear and donations," said Souza. They spread terror but at the same time, distributed presents to the poor.

"In that way, murderers came to political office, not as an expression of squalidness of a decaying society, but as a possibility, that was created by historical power structures," said Souza.

The sociologist emphasized that the seemingly irrational violence was not caused by poverty, but by the political structures, in which there are forces that allow the militias to carry out their actions.

In the 70s and 80s, violence on the outskirts of Rio increased and was then blamed on the city of Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian metropolis gained the reputation of being the most violent place in the world.

From 1994 to 1996, the murder rate in Rio was 74, 67 and 57 per 100,000 inhabitants. The horror stories about the Favelas of Rio spread across the whole world.

Representatives from the federal police told me that the criminal organization "Commando Vermelho" (Red Commando), the third biggest criminal group in the country, proliferated itself from 1969 in Rio de Janeiro. They were created from former, regular, criminals and political prisoners from the military dictatorship. This led to private clients hiring military police in order to get protection from extortion and kidnappings. These public servants operated in a vacuum, from which the state had withdrawn from and then began to commit crimes themselves. 

Brasilien Manaus Unruhen in brasilianischem Gefängnis
Brazil's federal police view the violence caused by organized crime as a national security threatImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Barros

The Bolsonaro family

Souza outlined that the family of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shared the same political convictions of the former deputy José Guilherme Godinho Sivuca, who was connected to the death squads of the military, and who once announced: "Only a dead criminal is a good criminal." 

Bolsonaro, said Souza, had made the military police heroes and was working on legislation to give them immunity — which would automatically also guarantee the militias immunity. 

The eldest son of the president, former Congress deputy, Flavio Bolsonaro, was elected as senator in Rio de Janeiro, in a militia-controlled area, with 70% of the vote. Even before his father became president, he was under investigation for suspected embezzlement of public funds and money laundering. During the investigation, it was revealed that two of his staff had been in direct contact with Adriano Magalhaes da Nóbrega, head of the local militia. Last July the Brazilian Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the investigations against Flavio Bolsonaro. 

The officers of the Brazilian federal police showed me a map of Brazil. The country has 26 federal states and according to this map, the militias are represented in 18 states, more than half of the fifth-largest country in the world.

The journalist and author Anabel Hernández has reported for many years about drug cartels and corruption in Mexico. Following murder threats, she was forced to leave Mexico and now lives in Europe. She was awarded Freedom of Speech Award 2019 at the Global Media Forum in Bonn. This text is the second in a series about thoughts on the situation of organized crime in Brazil.