Police in Rio de Janeiro have targeted one of the city’s oldest and largest militias, but the conditions that first gave rise to these groups decades ago and allowed them to thrive in Brazil remain firmly in place.
On the morning of July 3, police in Rio de Janeiro arrested six people connected to the Justice League (Liga da Justiça) militia. The operation was meant to disrupt the group’s money laundering operations, specifically its ownership of sand and gravel companies that brought in roughly $10.2 million in revenue from 2012 to 2017.
These companies were used to launder funds obtained by extorting local companies and residents. The suspects also targeted rival companies, killing their owners and taking them over.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Brazil Militias
This is only the latest in a series of attempts to take down the Justice League. Two of the founders of the group, Jerônimo Guimarães Filho and his brother Natalino, were arrested in 2008. At the time, the brothers both held elected offices. Leadership of the group was then taken over by Ricardo Teixeira Cruz, an ex-military policeman known as “Batman.” He ran the group until his arrest and conviction in September 2010.
In April 2018, police launched an operation aimed at capturing the current leader of the group, Wellington Silva da Braga, known as “Ecko.” He was able to escape while militia members opened fire on police. Four members of the group were killed and 159 people were arrested in one of the largest operations targeting militia groups. But the state prosecutor later called for the release of 138 of them on the grounds that they were not involved in any crimes.
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Many of Rio’s militias were formed in the 1990s and early 2000s, but some, like the Justice League, have survived to this day. Authorities in Rio de Janeiro have attempted to tackle them, but these efforts have been sporadic and done in a piecemeal fashion.
A lack of a sustained effort to combat the Justice League and similar groups has allowed their continued survival and expansion. They now control about a quarter of the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan region, an area encompassing two million of the city’s residents.
An acceptance of the use of violence against suspected criminals has long protected the militias, according to Dr. Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo and expert on militias and organized crime. He told InSight Crime that this acceptance has only grown under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has personally shown support for these groups.
Since militias were originally formed by active and retired police officers, prison guards and firefighters, they are still seen in some quarters as a positive force in the fight against criminal gangs. “Many in the police view the militias as natural allies, in some cases they know each other personally and professionally,” said Manso.
This tacit support reinforces the culture of impunity, vigilantism and lack of accountability that allows the militias to thrive.
And the Justice League, among other militias, has the particular ability to generate wealth while not attracting police attention. They have provided campaign support for local politicians, taken over utilities in communities they control and forced residents to purchase pirated cable, electricity, cooking oil and other necessities, particularly in the western Rio neighborhood of Baixada Fluminense.
Manso stated that without a profound shift in the perception of the militias, they will continue to gain in power. “How the militias evolve will depend … on the democratic institutions being able to control this kind of crime. We need to educate the public about the dangers of these kinds of groups,” he said.
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