A series of revelations about how militias in Rio de Janeiro are laundering large quantities of money through illegal real estate shines a light on the impunity with which these groups operate and the protection they receive from the state.
On April 12, two residential buildings collapsed in the community of Muzema in Rio de Janeiro, killing at least four people. A police operation quickly revealed that the buildings had been constructed illegally, without any approval from authorities. In a statement, the local government said that the area of Muzema is controlled by militia groups and it is difficult for officials to access.
A further investigation revealed that one of Rio’s most notorious militias, the Office of Crime (Escritório do Crime) had financed the construction of several such buildings, selling illegal apartments off for thousands of dollars.
The Office of Crime, which is made up of active and former police officers moonlighting as hitmen, has grabbed headlines in recent weeks for being connected to the murder of councilwoman Marielle Franco in 2018.
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This is but the latest revelation about how militias dominate the illegal real estate market in Brazil’s second-largest city. In February, a raid expelled militia members from 36 houses belonging to the country’s My House, My Life (Minha Casa, Minha Vida) social program, which they had seized and were selling or renting illegally.
Back in April 2018, militias were found to be illegally building "luxury" apartment blocks up to 10 stories high to the west of Rio de Janeiro, including in environmentally protected areas.
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These illegal constructions may seem legitimate from the outside, but there is no trace of them inside city registries and "landlords" or "tenants" pay no water or electricity, simply stealing these from existing infrastructure.
While such levels of corruption are unsurprising in today’s Brazil, the impunity with which militias operate is particularly brazen. An operation, dubbed “The Untouchables” (Os Intocáveis), was carried out in January to arrest key militia members. Five arrests were made and descriptions of certain fugitives were passed on to Interpol.
However, this appears to have been an isolated reaction from the state, not part of a longer-term campaign. Muzema, where the buildings fell in April, was one of the neighborhoods targeted in the January operation.
Militias in Rio de Janeiro maintain close connections to power, from which they still derive protection, stemming from the 2000s when they were were hailed as saviors by certain politicians for pacifying regions once prone to criminality.
But these groups, often made up of active and former police officers, have since become an established part of the criminal landscape, mostly blamed for a mounting number of extrajudicial killings.
Today, militias such as the Office of Crime act much like the gangs they allegedly banded together to fight. Over 65 percent of calls made by the Brazilian population through Disque Denúncia (a phone line for anonymous complaints about crime) are related to activities involving the militias, according to an investigation by The Intercept.
They control broad swaths of metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, with an estimated two million people living in areas under their control, according to Nexo. These groups have also drawn immense wealth from extortion and a monopoly over illegal sales of gas, Internet access, transportation, mining and even oil theft, with this money being funneled in part through illegal real estate.
Although cases such as that of Marielle Franco have shone a light on the insidious nature of these groups, militias still frequently benefit from “positive propaganda,” such as when helping the state pacify favelas.
Hardly a shadowy, underground criminal economy, illegal real estate could be the target of broader efforts to bring it to heel, but with connections existing between militia members and the highest echelons of power, that will may not be there.
“In Rio de Janeiro, the militias are not a parallel power," Brazilian sociologist José Claúdio Souza Alves has said. "They are the State.”