These police militias, rooted in Brazil’s authoritarian past but with ties to government today, claim that they’re private security enterprises needed to contain gang violence. But they now control far more of Rio than gangs ever have, researchers say. They have more weapons, more money, more political power. Still, they haven’t raised nearly as much concern among authorities.
“Their explosive expansion constitutes a great threat to democracy,” said Carolina Grillo, a researcher at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio.
In the KM32 favela of Nova Iguaçu, roughly 20 miles north of Rio de Janeiro city, a woman described receiving a photo by text.
The body of her 24-year-old son, one of several arrayed under a tree, lay naked and motionless. They were flanked by eight men in black, holding rifles.
The young man had been a member of the powerful Pure Third Command drug gang. Now came the message she had long dreaded: “Your son is dead.”
But his killers, the 53-year-old woman and her neighbors say, weren’t Pure Third Command’s traditional rivals. They were men whom they had known as children. Men who had grown up in the community, and swore to serve and protect it.
Men who were now members of the Bonde do Zinho, a police militia that has joined the bloody competition to lead the drug trade.
Remnants of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, police militias were once broadly accepted by authorities as an adjunct to official security forces in the fight against violent criminal gangs. But many are now vying against those gangs to dominate the same criminal activities.
They’re present throughout this South American nation. But in recent years their grip on Rio, the country’s cultural capital and top tourist destination, has both tightened and expanded.
In less than two decades, researchers at the nonprofit Instituto Fogo Cruzado and UFF say, militias have expanded the territory they control in the Rio metropolitan area nearly fourfold. They control about 30 percent of the metropolitan area, home to some 12 million people, and almost 60 percent of the city itself, the researchers reported last year. But even those estimates might be conservative: One state prosecutor, Elisa Pittaro, estimates that they operate in 70 percent of the metropolitan area.
They rule by fear and violence. In KM32, a favela of around 20,000 people, residents say militia members require business owners and street vendors to pay protection money. Women are expected to provide food to the men whenever they show up at their homes or restaurants, they told The Washington Post, though some can barely afford to feed their own families.
One former militia member remembers his first killing. He was in his early 20s when he was moved by a sense of powerlessness over the crime raging through his low-income neighborhood in northern Rio. And a deep thirst for revenge.
He was waiting in a car for a suspected drug trafficker to emerge from a bakery, he says. His hands trembled; he felt sick.
The target appeared. The gunman stepped out of the car and shot him several times at point blank range. The newly blooded killer cried and vomited: “You never forget your first one.”
The 44-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe his participation in extrajudicial killings and other crimes, described torturing people — such as the time, he said, he and his comrades fed a living man to an anaconda.
He said they studied the torture videos of Mexican cartels to learn techniques such as how to dismember a person while keeping them alive. “Do you think it is fair for someone who spent their life hurting innocent, hard-working people to just die off quickly?” he asked.
The Post could not verify his claims, but they align with tactics that prosecutors and witnesses say militias routinely use.
Neighbors once applauded the militias, he said. “We all believed we were doing the right thing, a greater good, protecting our communities, bringing calm, getting rid of thugs.”
But now he laments what he says is a change in their nature and purpose. That’s the reason, he said, that he agreed to describe his experiences to The Post.
“There are no more militias nowadays,” he said. “Just criminals who use the name because they work with narcos and extort residents.”
In recent months, Bonde do Zinho, its offshoot Bonde do Tandera and the drug gang Comando Vermelho (Red Command) have waged a bloody turf war that has terrorized residents.
Given that many here are afraid to report crimes, Pittaro and local authorities say, there are no reliable statistics to describe the violence. Official data show a 15 percent increase in homicides in Nova Iguaçu during the first seven months of this year over the same period in 2021.
The Rio state civil police force told The Washington Post that KM32 is often “a target of disputes between rival militia groups” and so is constantly monitored.
Police regularly conduct operations that result “in arrests of those involved in the criminal organizations that exploit that region,” police said in a statement. One such operation in May, they said, resulted in the arrest of seven members of the Tandera militia, some of whom operated in KM32.
The military police, too, conduct “systematic actions” in the region including “daily searches and patrolling” to ensure the “safety of citizens,” they said.
The militias, compared by some to vigilantes in Mexico or the Mafia in Italy, fill the void left by a state that is either unwilling or unable to provide security or even basic services in many of the city’s impoverished slums.
In KM32, residents told The Post, the violence is so oppressive and arbitrary that it makes the days when the community was controlled by simple drug gangs seem brighter in comparison.
“No matter what we do, even if we obey all of their rules and do exactly as we are told, we always feel like we are in the wrong,” said a woman whose son was killed by militia members seven years ago. “There is no negotiating anything with the militias.”
Like all other residents of KM32 interviewed for this article, she spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
The militias’ control, prosecutors, analysts and favela residents say, extends over virtually every facet of life; from unlicensed vans and motorcycle taxis to gas, electricity, water, television and internet connections.
In the Gardênia Azul favela in western Rio, militias require “tribute” from beer distributors for the large outdoor popular parties known as blocos. In the Maré favela, one of the largest in northern Rio, they demand payment for the use of soccer fields and parking spaces.
Many have now created alliances with drug traffickers, prosecutors and analysts say. Some now sell weapons to traffickers, join one gang in the fight against another, recruit members from the gangs. Some, prosecutors say, are now selling drugs themselves. And they’re spreading, from favelas ravaged by drug gangs into housing projects and communities with no prior experience of gangs.
Rio state Gov. Cláudio Castro says the state has made progress against the militias. A task force created in 2020 has conducted “hundreds of effective operations, based on investigations and intelligence work, which resulted in more than 1,300 criminals being arrested — including the head of the largest militia in Rio de Janeiro,” he said in a statement to The Post. He was referring to the 2021 capture and death of Wellington da Silva Braga.
The government has also tried to apply “financial asphyxia,” Castro said, targeting militias’ revenue streams, including clandestine internet centers and gas distribution centers.
As their criminal enterprise has grown, militias have moved into politics. In the early 2000s, leaders and members began running for and winning local office. More recently, they’ve recruited candidates with clean criminal records and pressured communities to elect them.
“The militia is characterized exactly by this penetration of the state, by having their members in the structures and institutions of the state, who act in their favor or protect their interests,” said Bruno Gangoni, who heads the organized crime unit of the Rio attorney general’s office. “So you have police officers, prison guards, and sometimes even members in Congress that will defend militias’ interests.”
Last year, Gangoni’s unit arrested Maurinho do Paiol, a member of Nilópolis city council, for his alleged ties with the militia. Paiol was found guilty this year of operating a branch of the militia that extorted residents, sold gas and cigarettes illegally and charged fees to motorcycle taxi drivers. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
“Militia men often offer large bribes to the candidates, get what they want from them and, in return, pressure people to vote for them,” said Pittaro, the prosecutor. “Only politicians linked to them are allowed to campaign in the territory.”
To guarantee their candidates win, she said, they threaten to raise voters’ protection payments if they lose.
“People have the idea that the militia is against the state and vice versa,” Pittaro said. “But the state is the militia.”
Back in the KM32 favela, the women say they have no one to turn to.
“There is no safety,” said the woman whose son disappeared seven years ago. “Police, militias and drug gangs, they are all the same thing to me,” she said. “I don’t trust any of them.”
Marina Dias in Brasília and Caio Barretto in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.