As part of a mounting campaign going after criminal finances, police in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro have asked courts to seize control of legal businesses used by militia groups to launder money.
This week, Rio’s anti-money laundering task force filed a request with the city’s judiciary to seize businesses that are legally registered and have paid all their taxes but have been used as fronts by militias, Globo reported. If approved, the companies would be taken over by administrators and continue to operate legally, but any profits would be used for police funding. The police stated this was to avoid any inconvenience to customers.
Last October, police shut down eight pharmacies across Rio de Janeiro for allegedly being used as money laundering fronts.
A week earlier, another raid led to the seizure of the “militia’s pharmacy,” a locale filled with medicine destined to be sold illegally, including controlled substances. The business was reportedly linked to the Nova Iguaçu militia, led by Wellington da Silva Braga, alias “Ecko,” the city’s most wanted man.
But pharmacies are just the tip of the money laundering iceberg. Over the last two months, police operations in Rio de Janeiro have reportedly seized assets worth 800 million reais ($150 million) from militia groups.
Militias have not been the only targets of this strategy. In October, InSight Crime reported that raids across dozens of cities had also sought to dismantle the finances of Brazil’s largest criminal gangs, Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC).
The state of Rio de Janeiro’s interim governor, Claudio Castro, stated this week that “the police’s strategy is to arrest these gangs and to asphyxiate them financially, to curb all these money laundering practices."
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It is encouraging to see the police make concerted efforts to target the finances of militias, now believed to have taken over from drug gangs as Rio’s largest criminal threat. But shuttering front businesses is just a first step, given the range of money laundering options available to these groups.
Militias -- often made up of current and former soldiers, police and firefighters -- have developed complex criminal economies throughout the city, such is their level of control. Residents in certain neighborhoods are often forced to rely on the militias to access essential services, including water, electricity, and internet access. The groups oversee real estate transactions, administer car parks and allow businesses to stay open or not, collecting rich extortion proceeds from the lot.
In an investigation dedicated to how the militias conducted business, Brazilian media UOL described militia bosses as current or former public officials "who act like feudal lords and strategize like capitalist executives.”
Their criminal governance faces few restrictions since the militias often find willing partners to collaborate within legal business sectors. “Merchandise warehouses and logistics companies like having the militia around to prevent cargo theft. The legal system makes arrangements with the illegal system,” Alba Zaluar, an anthropology professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro – UERJ), told UOL.
Despite their involvement in a range of illegal activities, militias still enjoy broad impunity. The aforementioned militia boss, da Silva Braga, is Rio’s most-wanted man and facing charges in nine different cases. Yet, according to a profile by Globo, he travels around the city with his own security escort, lives in luxury houses and frequently interacts with police officers and drug traffickers alike.