A Brazilian militia’s invasion of hundreds of government apartments in Rio, which it then sold on, is another sign of how these vigilante groups seem more interested in committing crimes than in fighting them.

The Justice League’s (Liga da Justica) takeover of government housing units in a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro is the latest example of organized criminal activity on the part of these organizations.

In May, local news reported that the “milicia,” or militia group, was collecting “security” from about 10,000 residents in over 2,000 apartments, all part of the popular federal program known as, “My House, My Life.”

Even worse, according to the report, the Justice League occupied and then sold more than half of the 262 apartments in the complex, charging between $5,000 and $40,000 for each one. Some 70 people who had been assigned those houses by the government were prevented from moving in. Many of these families, who got the apartments because authorities said their houses were at risk of collapsing in the rain, had to return to their former homes.

The government has stepped in, but the present residents do not want to leave, and the new families do not want to take the apartments because they fear militia retaliation.

For their part, the Justice League continues to extort local residents throughout the housing complex to “protect” them against drug gangs, the reports say.

The dominance of militias in large areas of Rio is no longer new or a secret. These groups were formed largely by ex-cops and police to push out drug pushers and traffickers. They were initially popular because they entered criminal territory, especially places where the government had no solid presence or ability to fight the criminal gangs.

But what began as a vigilante movement has quickly turned into a criminal enterprise with deep ties to security forces and politicians alike. Indeed, the militias often operate in concert with Rio’s Military Police. These police forces now generally enter areas first, doing an initial “cleanse” before the militias send in their soldiers. Once a militia has established a foothold, military police provide security rings and sweeps of the area.

Militias then offer “protection” to the locals in exchange for weekly payments. They also supply pirate cable and Internet, provide cooking gas and transportation services. They often control the water supply, cutting it, for instance, if a resident does not pay their “protection” quota. In some of these areas, the new bosses seem remarkably like the old gangs, and have turned to drug trafficking as well.

Groups such as the Justice League have taken over large swaths of the city. By one count, they were in one-third of Rio’s favelas by 2009, and sometimes in areas that had never previously had drug traffickers or large criminal organizations.

Several militias are also very closely tied to local politicians such as Luiz Ferreira da Silva, a city councilman who was arrested earlier this year for his alleged association with a militia group in west Rio.

Jailing them has had little effect. As InSight has reported, the groups regularly manage their operations from their prison cells. They seem to operate under a tacit understanding with most law enforcement that they are on the same side.

In this context, the Justice League takeover of a government housing complex appears to be part of a pattern, one which shows little sign of abating.

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