The murder of a Brazilian judge by the mafia that runs illegal public transport in a Rio suburb draws attention to the links between death squads, the police, and providers of bootleg services in the city.

Judge Patricia Acioli was murdered outside her house on August 11. Witnesses said that two men riding a motorcyle, possibly accompanied by a car, waited for the judge to come home, before firing more than 20 shots at her. Acioli served as the head of a criminal court in São Gonçalo, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, since 1999, and had made many enemies. She had taken a strong stand against mafia groups and police executions in the municipality, ordering the arrest of death squad members, going after the mafia that ran illegal fuel and transport rackets.

In 2009 the authorities warned Acioli that she was the target of an assassination plot by a group, known as the “mafia of the vans,” who run unlicensed minivans in the area. More recently her name appeared on a death list found on the alleged leader of a local death squad, Wanderson Silva Tavares, known as “Gordinho,” when he was arrested in January 2011. His group included members of the military and civil police, and is thought to have been active in São Gonçalo since 2007. He is under investigation for at least 16 murders in the area.

Police have said that Acioli was murdered by São Gonçalo death squads in collusion with the vans mafia. The individuals suspected of carrying out the killing include a drug trafficker, a former military police officer due to be tried by Acioli, and a death squad member.

This nexus between the police, death squads, and the groups which run illegal transport is illustrative of the criminal landscape in Rio. Much of the city’s poorer communities are under the control of militias, led by current or former members of the police. These were originally founded as vigilante groups to protect communities from drug traffickers, but have since converted, in many cases, into death squads which fund themselves by providing bootleg public services. This includes the provision of the Internet, cooking gas and cable TV to favelas where the government has little presence. They usually tax local people, impose curfews, and even distribute housing. Some run unlicensed public transport networks, using vans to ferry people to and from work, as is the case in São Gonçalo.

Some analysts attribute the rise of unlicensed public transport in part to the way the Rio’s privatized transport system is managed. Service providers are given long term contracts which can cause them to behave like monopolies and provide low quality service to customers. In addition to this, Rio’s explosive growth and vast expanse means that many areas, especially informal settlements, have been left with insufficient transport connections. Illegal bus services began to become prominent in the 1990s, and were soon taken over by criminal groups who saw a source of profit.

The fact that the militia groups provide services means that they pose a particular danger to the state and rule of law. Their control over essential goods such as transport and even water means that they can exert deep control over the lives of local residents. State lawmaker Marcelo Freixo, a long-time campaigner against militias, said in a statement following Acioli’s death that the militias are the biggest threat facing Rio, claiming that they now control the majority of the city’s drug trade. He said that they are hard to fight because they are made up of agents of the state like police and town councilors.

The São Gonçalo vans mafia is no exception — a 2010 report highlighted how, despite attempts to crack down on the group and a number of arrests, the group has been able to protect its business and most of its members by using its position and links with those in authority. The head of the gang, until his imprisonment in 2008, was Edson da Silva Mota, known as “Mota da Copasa,” who won a seat on the municipal council — Acioli was responsible for his conviction.

The vans mafia were able to kill off people who got in their way — officials say they were responsible for more than 100 murders, many of them drivers who had refused to join their network and pay a tax to work in São Goncalo. According to investigations carried out against the vans mafia in 2008, the group would charge drivers R150 to R300 a week ($90 to $180) to work on their routes. In December 2008 a key witness against their activities was murdered in São Goncalo.

The authorities have since launched the biggest ever operation on illegal vans — usually tolerated — in São Gonçalo and the neighboring municipalities of Niteroi and Marica. The Department of Road Transport (Detro) mobilized 100 officers and seized 41 vehicles in two days. In killing Acioli the group may have gone too far, and may yet force authorities to finally crack down on their business.

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