A recent string of militia-linked murders in Brazil is sparking increased public discussion about the widespread presence and power of these criminal groups, which in spite of their long history and current expansion remain shrouded in mystery and relatively untouched by security operations.
On April 16 -- one month after the high-profile assassination of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes -- the city’s Security Minister Raul Jungmann publicly confirmed that the “most probable hypothesis” under investigation is that militias were responsible for the murders.
Rio’s militias are paramilitary-style groups rooted in a nationwide tradition of death squads that grew up in the era of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s. They are typically composed of former and current security force members that use violence and coercion to assert control over typically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Many of these groups enjoyed initial support from the communities where they operated due to their willingness to displace violent drug trafficking groups, but many later criminalized and became involved in drug trafficking, extortion and other organized crime activities.
Now, the murder of Franco -- who participated in a 2008 government investigation of the militias, and was outspoken against violence committed by militias and police -- has sparked a media firestorm, putting a spotlight on these criminal groups.
In addition to being suspected of involvement in Franco's killing, alleged militia members were also recently accused of murdering five young men who lived in a government-funded housing project controlled by the militia. Militias have also been tied to killings outside of Rio, including in the city of Belém in the northeastern state of Pará, where a wave of militia-linked homicides may have been retaliation for the murders of two military police officers earlier that day.
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Amid this series of militia-linked attacks, several Brazilian news outlets have analyzed data that suggests militias are expanding their territorial control and criminal activities in Rio and across Brazil.
According to a recent investigative series by O Globo based on official government data, militias currently control one-quarter of Rio’s metropolitan area, having doubled their presence since 2010. As a result, almost 2 million people, or just over 15 percent of the area’s total population, live in militia-controlled zones. O Globo’s investigation found that the majority of these militias engage in extortion of local communities in exchange for “security” and access to basic services and goods, such as water and power, as well as exploiting government-funded housing programs and construction contracts.
A separate analysis by The Intercept Brasil looked at data acquired from Disque Denúncia, a group that collects complaints of criminal activities from Rio residents. The report found that militia activity accounted for 65 percent of the 6,000 complaints submitted between 2016 and 2017, while only 35 percent of complaints were linked to drug trafficking groups.
Militias also appear to be expanding outside of Rio, and could be having negative impacts on security in those areas. According to an analysis by Metrópoles of data acquired from Disque 100, a reporting line for Brazil’s Human Rights Ministry that records complaints of crimes and human rights violations, militia activity was reported in 15 states across the country in the past two years. The states whose residents submitted the most militia-related complaints were all in northern Brazil, the most violent area of the country.
InSight Crime Analysis
Franco’s murder sparked increased public attention and scrutiny of Brazil’s militias, but much remains unknown about these powerful criminal actors whose apparent expansion is likely being fueled by recent shifts in criminal dynamics.
According to security experts consulted by InSight Crime, violence associated with Rio’s militias is spiking following a split between older and newer militia groups now vying for control over important areas in the city.
After several militia leaders were arrested in the mid to late 2000s, their groups were weakened, creating opportunities for a younger, “more aggressive” generation to form their own militias, said Julio Altieri, who works with security consulting firm Amarante in Rio.
These newer militias are currently engaging in a “fierce fight” for control over favelas in Baixada Fluminense and Praça Seca in Rio’s west zone, and likely account for much of the militias’ recent expansion in the city, Altieri said.
According to Desmond Arias, a professor at George Mason University with experience in Rio, the current disorder in the city's underworld may also be fueled in part by the recent rollout of a federal military intervention and massive security operations against the militias, which may be disrupting their operations and encouraging a violent backlash.
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The expansion of the militia phenomenon beyond Rio in recent years is also unsurprising because the conditions that sparked the militias’ birth are now spreading across Brazil, said Benjamin Lessing, a professor at the University of Chicago who focuses on organized crime.
In recent years, the model of prison-controlled street gangs that has long dominated Rio has taken hold across the country, and may in turn be prompting local security force officers to form militia-like groups to counter them.
According to Arias, these newly emerging militias may even rely on “a back and forth of information, knowledge and practices” with militia members in Rio, many of whom immigrated there from northeast Brazil where the militia phenomenon is growing most quickly.
Lessing, Altieri and Arias all emphasized that the militias’ power across Brazil is directly tied to high levels of corruption. Most militia members are former or current security force officials, and militias often maintain close relationships with politicians, many of whom have been specifically elected to protect the militias’ interests and divert attention from their activities.
“Any way you slice it, it’s very hard to fight the militias. These are granular groups with deep, deep ties to the state security apparatus,” Lessing said, adding that bribes and an “unwillingness” among security officers to “shoot at [their] own kind” also make militias difficult to combat.
Altieri agreed that the militia problem “probably won’t be solved soon” due to limited security budgets constrained by Brazil’s economic struggles, and politically-motivated decisions to invest in ineffective short-term militarized approaches ahead of elections later this year.
In addition, Lessing said that due to the fear militias have generated through violence and threats, there are still gaps in public understanding of the true scope of militia control.
“The capacity of the government to do investigations that yield arrests ... and the ability of academics and journalists to investigate the militias is extremely constrained,” Lessing said.