Last week's police raid in Rio de Janeiro, which left as many as 23 dead, marked yet another escalation into a security campaign against the Red Command gang, which has killed dozens of people and may end up benefiting an entirely different set of criminals.
On May 24, military police led a 12-hour operation into the northern Rio favela of Vila Cruzeiro, a neighborhood controlled by the city's most prolific drug trafficking organization, Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV). According to Globo, the raid had been planned for months but was rushed at the last minute due to the threat of CV criminals fleeing the area.
The result: at least 23 dead, amid allegations of torture, executions and a terrified population. At least one victim, Gabrielle Ferreira da Cunha, was confirmed to have been killed by a stray bullet while inside her home.
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The pattern has become familiar. Last February, Vila Cruzeiro saw nine people killed in another operation.
And a year ago, another raid targeting CV, in the neighborhood of Jacarezinho, saw 28 people killed.
Brazil's Attorney General's Office, and its local counterpart in Rio, have both opened investigations into the Vila Cruzeiro raid. But similar steps were taken after Jacarezinho, with little results to date.
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There is no doubt that the Red Command is a major criminal threat, with a dominant presence in an estimated quarter of the city. The gang's rivalries have led to hundreds of homicides nationwide.
But the motivations and results of these police raids in Rio may not stand up to scrutiny. As the police chip away at CV territory one set of actors repeatedly muscles in to fill the gap: militia groups.
These vigilante forces originally rose up to fight back against drug traffickers but have since become a dominant criminal force themselves. Largely made up of active and former police, military and prison guard personnel, their connections to security forces has seen them act with broad impunity.
A report by Brazilian media outlet UOL found, that between 2016 and 2019, just under 3 percent of police shootings took place in militia territory, as compared to 57 percent in areas held by the CV.
"Rio is a city with two police forces: one that promotes incessant and violent confrontation against drug trafficking and another that is lenient with the militias," said the report.
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Such alleged preferential treatment could see militias move in on areas held by the CV. Joana Monteiro, an expert in public security at the Getulio Vargas Foundation think tank, told InSight Crime that reduced police interventions in militia territories feeds into perceptions that they drive down violence. Monteiro affirmed "there is more violence in the areas controlled by drug traffickers both because there are more disputes between them and because the police intervene more."
After the Jacarezinho massacre, Benjamin Lessing, a professor at the University of Chicago who examines organized crime, also told InSight Crime that "militias everywhere can use this as a way to gain civilian support. These shootouts don't happen in militia-held areas."
But having the militias move in often comes at a cost to Rio's poorer citizens. Beyond engaging in extortion and, in some cases, drug trafficking, throughout much of the city, these groups have installed their own form of government. They are often the only providers of basic services, monopolizing Internet and television access, or even building entire apartment buildings.
For Monteiro, militia groups are looking to position themselves as "territorial criminal enterprises... trying to monopolize coercion" in Rio. She went on to forecast "I think we are moving to a new reality with lower violence and higher economic diversification."