Dozens of police officers and over 100 alleged drug traffickers have been arrested over six years in northeast Brazil, spreading fears that security forces are colluding with criminals in increasingly complex ways across the country.
On February 2, 17 members of the military police and 14 suspected drug traffickers were detained in the state of Ceará during the latest round of Operation Genesis, an ongoing security operation aiming to dismantle corruption within the police.
The detained officers were allegedly bribed by a drug trafficking gang for "privileged information" on their criminal rivals, allowing the gang to dominate the drug trade in parts of Ceará's state capital, Fortaleza, as well as in the municipalities of Caucaia, Pacatuba, and Maranguape, according to a press release by the Ceará Attorney General's Office. The officers also sold weapons and ammunition that they had seized from criminals, the press release stated.
The number of arrested police has piled up since Operation Genesis began in 2016. At least 63 military police officers have faced charges of drug trafficking, robbery, weapons trafficking, and criminal association.
In parallel, 120 police officers, prison guards, and firefighters have been fired in Ceará on suspicion of various criminal and administrative charges.
In November 2022, a three-part podcast, "Maçãs Podres" (Rotten Apples), by Brazil's regional newspaper, Diario do Nordeste, detailed how deep these connections run. In the podcast, the newspaper explained that specialized squads of complicit police officers and prison guards form corrupt relationships with criminal groups inside prison and on the streets.
The spread of police involvement has been a significant security concern for Brazil in recent years, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where "militias" -- criminal groups made up of active and retired police and prison guards -- dominate criminal economies in much of the city. Members of these militia groups have also been connected to high-profile assassinations, including that of Rio Councilwoman Marielle Franco, in 2018.
"Criminal groups within police forces across Brazil have grown, [and] many cases have been identified in states such as Pará, Amazonas, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Ceará," said Bruno Paes Manso, an expert on Brazilian organized crime dynamics at the University of São Paulo's Center for the Study of Violence (Núcleo de Estudos da Violência – NEV).
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Police networks in Ceará do act in some ways similar to Rio de Janeiro's militias, but they do not yet have anywhere near the same level of influence or power. They remain largely service providers to existing criminal groups, as opposed to dominant players themselves.
Rio's militias grow wealthy through territorial control and are often in charge of almost all public services within specific neighborhoods. In poorer communities of Rio, they have control over real estate; the delivery of electricity, gas, and internet; and the assignment of parking spaces. They also extort some businesses a "protection" fee, which can be a blanket permission to stay open later.
In contrast, Ceará's police offered specific services to criminal clients, irrespective of territory.
"The police involved in organized crime in Ceará are not so territorial, they carry out extortion or murder-for-hire," said Ricardo Moura, a public security journalist with O Povo, a newspaper in Fortaleza.
However, both types of involvement have sent the number of homicides attributed to police soaring, according to the experts.
"When police are ready to kill, it gives them an advantage in the criminal landscape. They become very strong criminal figures as they have carte blanche to kill and grow rich," said Paes Manso.