Rio de Janeiro’s foremost militia leader has been gunned down by police, potentially shattering the belief that militias in the city were protected due to connections with authorities. But was this a lone action or the start of a real reckoning?

On June 12, Wellington da Silva Braga, alias “Ecko,” was killed after police raided his family home in Paciência, a neighborhood in western Rio.

There was a measure of controversy about his death, however. According to police reports, da Silva Braga was shot once but only injured and surrendered. But once inside a police van, he allegedly tried to grab the gun of a police officer after which he was shot a second time and killed.

“Ecko was shot two times. When he tried to flee out the back [of the house], he was hit with one shot. During the trip in a van to a helicopter, he tried to grab the weapon of a female police officer, and he was shot a second time,” Thiago Neves, Rio’s deputy secretary for intelligence, told the press.

An investigation into the circumstances of his death has been opened.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Brazil Militias

After his death, members of his gang reportedly erected barricades of burning tires along major thoroughfares in western Rio, forcing public transport in the area to be suspended.

One of the most-wanted men in Rio de Janeiro, da Silva Braga had led “Bonde do Ecko,” a militia group that dominated much of the west of the city and the Baixada Fluminense, a large area to the north of the city.

In January 2021, InSight Crime reported on how Bonde do Ecko had a number of clandestine pharmacies in Rio de Janeiro, illegally selling medicine. Besides this, like other militia groups in Brazil, the gang controls its neighborhoods by extorting businesses and by offering illegal services, including water and gasoline distribution, public transport, and clandestine TV services, known as “gatonet.”

Ecko’s gang popularized the modus operandi of militia groups. While he was not a former police officer himself, many members of Bonde do Ecko were former or current police and the gang reportedly enjoyed a measure of protection by authorities.

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The killing of a militia leader is rare but not unheard of in Rio. Even Bonde do Ecko, formerly known as Liga da Justiça (Justice League), has seen six of its leaders killed since 2007.

But now, as militias are the dominant criminal player in Rio and growing nationwide, da Silva Braga’s death raises several issues.

First, it conclusively exposed the problem at the heart of Rio’s police force. While its commanders may order operations against militias, links between these groups and active police officers are undeniable.

When he entered his family home that day, da Silva Braga appears to have been wearing a military police jacket bearing the name “Captain Braga.”

SEE ALSO: Rio Militias and Their Complex Empire of Legal Businesses

And since he was not a police officer, da Silva Braga had to fight off repeated attempts by former cops to take over his gang. He allegedly ordered the murders of several retired police officers, linked to the militia group, who objected to his leadership.  

Second, da Silva Braga represented a different type of militia leader. His outsider status as a militia leader without a police background had him marked out by investigators as a “pé-inchado” (swollen foot), a derogatory term for someone who doesn’t fit in.  

But far from letting this weaken him, da Silva Braga continued to do things differently. Where other militia groups viewed drug trafficking gangs as enemies, Bonde do Ecko did business with them. The group reportedly had an alliance with Terceiro Comando Puro (Third Pure Command – TCP), a drug trafficking gang. The two groups participated in criminal schemes together and even fought alongside each other against Comando Vermelho (Red Command – CV), Rio’s largest drug gang.

Third, da Silva Braga and his gang may have been targeted not because of an overall campaign against militias but specifically because they didn’t fit the traditional militia mold.

While Bonde do Ecko is the largest militia gang in the city, they have seen a large number of operations aimed at bringing them down.  

Six of its leaders, including Ecko’s own brother, have successfully been killed or captured since 2007. Da Silva Braga survived a number of previous attempts to capture him, including in 2018 and 2019. In October 2020, another police raid killed 12 alleged members of the group. And while all militia groups in the city enjoy control of key services, recent raids to shut down illegal pharmacies or clandestine streaming services have again targeted Bonde do Ecko specifically.

The most blatant difference between the treatment of da Silva Braga and other militia leaders may have come from Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator and son of President Jair Bolsonaro.

After da Silva Braga’s death, he tweeted: “Congratulations to the civil police of Rio for the elimination of the militiaman “Ecko,” who was never a police officer and was the most-wanted in the country. All my respect and unconditional support to the real police in all Brazil.”

But in February 2020, when another top militia leader and former military police captain, Adriano da Nóbrega, was killed, Flávio Bolsonaro took a very different tone. He wrote that “people are speeding up the cremation of Adriano da Nóbrega to disappear the evidence that he was brutally murdered.”

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