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How Religious Militias and Warrior Mentalities Mix in Rio de Janeiro

BRAZIL / 5 SEP 2022 BY ALESSANDRO FORD EN

There is no single factor to blame for Rio de Janeiro's seemingly endless security crisis. But among constant battles between gangs and security forces, certain issues such as how gender and religion play into the violence have fallen by the wayside.

How does the militarization of impoverished favelas affect women? Why is the city seeing a sharp rise in gender-based violence? And why is a militia with neo-Pentecostal roots waging a war on the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV).

To better understand these issues, InSight Crime spoke to Kristina Hinz, a researcher on gender and organized crime in Brazil at Rio de Janeiro State University’s Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence.

Since February 2022, among her other projects, Hinz has been writing a column for openDemocracy titled “Women in Dark Times: Feminist Perspectives on Violence, Security, and Organized Crime in Brazil.”

InSight Crime (IC): To start, how did you end up studying how gender, religion, and organized crime relate to each other in Rio de Janeiro?

Kristina Hinz (KH): I’ve been living in Rio de Janeiro since 2010, where I quickly became interested in violence and security. The crucial importance of gender and religion came to my attention with the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Evangelical religious leaders played a key role in the outing of the first woman president in Brazil.

Rousseff’s destitution provoked a rollback on women’s rights -- a trend that was aggravated during the Bolsonaro administration. However, the definite eye-opener for me was the brutal execution of Marielle Franco by paramilitary forces in 2018. I kept asking myself: Why did they target her? Why not a man?  

I started to seriously consider questions such as what kind of role gender plays in the social construction of crime? How do state and criminal violence differ with regards to gender? In this discussion, religion figures are an immensely important component, offering suitable moral narratives for effective governance, criminal or not.

IC: How did your column on gender and organized crime get started?

KH: In Brazil, studies that address violence and security often neglect gender while gender scholars have left aside the reality of the war on drugs. My work aims to use gender as a starting and ending point to address issues related to violence and security, such as police violence, the international arms trade, dynamics of organized crime groups, and political violence. These are topics of enormous relevance for Brazilian society, particularly for women living in urban peripheries.

IC: In that column, you’ve conceptualized the war on drugs as a confrontation between warrior masculinities. How does this play out in cities like Rio de Janeiro?

KH: The state-led drug war is governed by a masculine military logic where the enemy is the drug trafficker, portrayed as an animalistic male figure, commonly associated with the young, poor, and black man -- a stigma in Brazilian society. To confront this internal enemy, police act as soldiers in a war, seeking to conquer territory, to neutralize, and even to eliminate the criminals.

SEE ALSO: Rio's Campaign Against Red Command Achieving Little But Increasing Body Count

I understand the war on drugs as a confrontation between two warrior masculinities: on the one hand, the police officer, and on the other, the drug trafficker. Non-military governance measures are discarded while the population is forced to tolerate authoritarian actions with total disrespect for human rights.

This masculine logic of war has gained strength and has been predominant in Jair Bolsonaro's government. Last year, more than 6,000 people were killed by police forces in Brazil.

Another effect of the masculine logic of war in public security is the expansion of paramilitary groups. Today, militias already control more than half of the city of Rio de Janeiro, collecting protection fees, managing gas distribution and alternative transportation, and spreading terror and fear among the local population.

IC: What effect do these warrior masculinities have on rates of gender-based violence?

KH: Women bear wounds, often invisible, resulting from a failed public security policy. Female partners and mothers of drug traffickers regularly have their homes invaded and vandalized by police forces. Often, these women have been subjected to sexual harassment and different forms of torture, which seems to be both a form of revenge and a "message" to their partners.

If the police forces cannot get to the drug traffickers, they go after the women close to them. In this macho mentality, having your mother's house raided or your girlfriend tortured is an extreme humiliation -- maybe even greater than death.

IC: Obviously, the prevalence of illegal guns has been a major concern in cities like Rio. How, if at all, does gender figure into that?

KH: The link between violence against women, organized crime, and the diversion of weapons to criminal groups is particularly evident in the case of councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was assassinated in 2018, likely by paramilitary groups.

This is a political crime that has so far gone unsolved but it is known that the murder weapon was a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun from Germany. In Brazil, that firearm is exclusively used by special units of the civil and military police, the federal police, and some units of the armed forces.

That fact has raised questions for the international arms trade. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to which Germany is a signatory, requires arms-exporting countries to assess the risk of diversion and the use of weapons to facilitate or commit acts of gender-based violence. After much pressure from German civil society, Heckler & Koch suspended the sale of weapons to Brazil.

The circulation of firearms is a decisive factor in the dramatic increase in violence, including femicides, that Brazil has experienced in recent years. The commitment of the ATT signatory countries should be active not just rhetorical. They cannot ignore the high levels of violence against women in Brazil nor the murky relations between security forces and the underworld.

IC: You’ve also written about Rio’s Complexo de Israel and its so-called "neo-Pentecostal narco-militia.” What are those?

KH: The so-called "Complexo de Israel" is an alliance between drug traffickers, evangelical churches, and paramilitary groups that currently controls a vast territory in Rio's North Zone, encompassing at least 130,000 people across the five favelas of Vigário Geral, Parada de Lucas, Cidade Alta, Cinco Bocas, and Pica-Pau.

This alliance combines the modus operandi of drug trafficking, which seeks expansion into markets and territories, with a religious fundamentalism that sees non-evangelicals as followers of the devil.

SEE ALSO: Brazil's Evangelical Gangs Waging War on Afro-Brazilian Religions

What is being waged in the North Zone is therefore a "holy war." On one side, we have evangelical drug traffickers, including several militias and Rio’s second-biggest gang, the Third Pure Command (Terceiro Comando Puro - TCP). Several of the TCP’s leaders were converted to neo-Pentecostalism while serving time in state prisons.

On the other, there is their main rival, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), an old gang that is traditionally associated with Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda. In the Complexo de Israel, Candomblé temples have therefore been destroyed and their priests expelled.

This alliance is expanding to other favelas in Rio de Janeiro, where other drug gangs have voluntarily joined the Complexo de Israel. Copies of this model have also emerged, such as the recent attempt to create a “Jerusalem Complex” (Complexo de Jerusalem) on the outskirts of the city.

IC: What key changes do you think could improve Rio and Brazil’s security situation?

KH: I see four main areas for intervention. Firstly, Brazil needs profound police reform that breaks with militarized and masculine logic. "Security" cannot mean waging a war that has victimized over 10,000 people over the last ten years, as has occurred in Rio de Janeiro. Any security approach is also useless if it doesn’t include women's rights and their specific needs for protection and assistance.

Secondly, Brazil needs to review its gun legislation and rigorously investigate how weapons are diverted. The human rights abuses in the country also demand greater responsibility from arms exporters like France, Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. These countries urgently need to prove their commitment to ATT guidelines and evaluate how their weapons are being used in Brazil.

Thirdly, Brazil needs to effectively combat militia groups at their source, targeting their sources of funding and strategies for expansion. And fourthly, Brazil needs to review its current drug policy.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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