A conflict in Brazil's northeast, where security forces launched an operation to quell a violent feud between criminal dynasties, is a reminder that in some rural parts of the country, state presence is as weak and crime as rampant as in urban favelas.
On October 12, two gunmen on a motorcycle tried to kill a municipal prison director in the northeast state of Paraiba, firing 11 shots at his car. The attack came just 15 days after police announced a new security offensive, known as "Operation Blood Ties," to stop a wave of killings linked to an ongoing feud between three crime families. The conflict is reportedly responsible for at least 95 murders in Paraiba so far this year, 31 of those police officers.
Some 1,200 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Paraiba is a state best known for its ranching economy and its history of "cangaceiros" -- bandits who preyed on rich landowners. Similarly to Colombian cattle-ranching departments like Caqueta, where rule of law is weak and local politics are based on an intricate network of family loyalties, Paraiba is at the periphery of Brazil both in terms of geography and attention from the national government.
The region is also among Brazil's most violent. Out of 27 states, Paraiba has third highest rate of firearm-related homicides.
But the ongoing insecurity in Paraiba, which security officials have said could have roots in disputes over contraband and drug trafficking routes, calls into question Brazil's ability to enforce the rule of law even in the most forgotten departments. This is especially pertinent as Brazil continues its push to increase its global clout, both on the world stage and as a regional leader in Latin America.
Paraiba's police say three families are responsible for the targeted killings seen so far this year. The ones who appear to be most involved in organized crime are the Oliveiras, based in two of Paraiba's larger cities, Patos and Catole do Rocha. According to Paraiba's security secretary, the Oliveiras work with the organization of Law Kin Chong, whom the Federal Police have described as the biggest contraband runner in the country. The Oliveiras reportedly smuggle pirated goods from Paraguay, which are then distributed by Chong in major cities like São Paulo.
The regional secretary of security told newspaper Jornal Correio de Paraiba that the Oliveiras are also reportedly involved in drug trafficking, and have a faction of their operations based in São Paulo, including a network of hitmen.
The conflict between the Oliveiras and two other prominent Paraiba families, the Veras and the Suassanas, may have originally arisen as a dispute over control of traditional contraband networks. Local politicians have said the conflict has been running for 50 years now, and may have begun as a fight over political power involving the Suassanas and another family, the Mayas.
The feud reignated in the 1990s, and a surge of killings saw many members of the three families -- in-laws, cousins, nephews and brothers -- shot dead. Now, the ongoing conflict appears to be locked in a cycle of revenge killings, motivated primarily by family ties. However, it is possible that there is another, more strategic objective behind the violence: gaining control of the Oliveiras' contraband networks.
Investigations in Paraiba have also reportedly shown that the Oliveiras may have had some associates killed in order to collect the life insurance, worth up to $200,000 in some cases. This may have also played a role in fueling the conflict, if the Oliveiras then blamed the killings on their rivals.
The police offensive meant to stem the violence has seen the arrest of 17 suspects so far, including a woman described as the matriach of the Oliveiras and the mastermind behind many of the murders. But the recent assassination attempt against Estenio Dantas, the director of Paraiba's prison system, may be one indication that the feuding families intend to begin targeting state officials, not just each other. According to Dantas, at least two police commanders and two judges based in Patos and Catole do Rocha have also received death threats.
In one effort to improve security, Paraiba's government is reportedly considering installing community policing units, modeled after the UPP in Rio de Janeiro, in the state's capital city. In Paraiba's more rural outposts, however, for now the responsibility lies with the 130 police responsible for carrying out "Operation Blood Ties." If the short-term objective is to quell the feud between Paraiba's three warring families, the long-term goal must be break up the contraband networks which allow groups like the Oliveiras to fund themselves.
Brazil has primarily promoted Rio de Janeiro's UPP program as an example for how the country is improving security in time for Rio's hosting of the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup. But while the focus on urban crime is an understandable priority, so long as the homicide rates in Brazil's rural departments remain so high, and the contraband business so prosperous, Brazil can hardly speak of having achieved a model security community. The current feud raging in far-off Paraiba is but one reminder that in many pockets of the country, the government is having a tough time properly containing the threats of violence, contraband and the drug trade.