RIO DE JANEIRO – The growing dominance of militias in Brazil’s second city is casting a shadow over campaigning as voters in more than 5,500 cities and towns across Brazil prepare to go to the polls on Sunday to elect mayors and councilors.
The militias, largely made up of active-duty and former cops and soldiers, originated during the 1964-1985 military regime, but carved out a new role for themselves in the 1990s as “security providers” in the poorest favelas (shantytowns) of Rio de Janeiro.
Some residents saw the militias as needed to counter the drug-trafficking gangs that embedded themselves in the favelas, while others bristled at the depredations of the “protectors,” who typically establish monopolies over the provision of basic services and use that control to jack-up prices and rates.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who began his political career in Rio, is among the high-profile politicians who acknowledge connections with the militias, while disavowing any knowledge of the groups’ illicit activities.
The president’s son, Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro, has attracted scrutiny for his connections to militia-linked police officers arrested for the March 2018 assassination of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, a 38-year-old Afro-Brazilian lesbian from one of the city’s most crime-ridden favelas.
On Thursday, Federal Police searched a dozen properties owned by brothers Natalino and Jerominho Guimaraes, founders and leaders of Rio’s largest militia, the self-styled “League of Justice.”
The brothers are suspected of laundering money to finance the campaign of Jerominho’s daughter, Carmen Gloria Guinancio Guimaraes Teixeira, for a seat on the city council.
Militias currently exercise control over nearly 58 percent of the “Wonderful City” in terms of area, corresponding to more than a third of the 6.7 million inhabitants.
Sociologist Daniel Hirata, one of the researchers who put together a map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro, told EFE that the militias not only seize control of public services such as water, power, internet and transport in the communities they dominate, they also take over the real estate sector.
“To that is added the market for protections and extortion – perhaps the militias’ only specialization – because it is the one that includes all the other criminal markets,” he said.
Unlike drug dealers, the militias have a “project of power” that envisions the capture of the political system, Hirata said.
“The organization of that entire political system is very important for the militias to be able to expand and broaden their dominion, for them to be able to profit from legal and illegal activities,” he said.
The director of the Brazilian Public Safety Forum, Renato Sergio de Lima, said that the government created an opening for the militias through chronic mismanagement of the police, who are badly paid and undisciplined.
Cops come to see working for the militias as a way to improve their lot, he told EFE.
The ascendancy of the militias is “a collateral effect of the country’s complete lack of control of its police forces,” Lima said. “That would not have happened if there had been police who were at the same time supervised and valorized.”
Authorities have been receiving an average of 10 reports a day of violence against political campaigns in Rio during the run-up to the elections.
Militias are blamed for the majority of those incidents, including the deaths last month of two candidates and last week’s attempt on the life of another office-seeker.
Journalist Bruno Paes Manso, author of the book, “The Republic of Militias: From the Death Squads to Bolsonaro Era,” says that the paramilitaries are increasingly setting the limits of electoral discourse.
“They manage to create a filter in the elections, because in the territories where they have dominion only candidates who sympathize with the group or get its endorsement can run,” he told EFE. “If you oppose the authority exercised by these kinds of people, who are very violent and heavily armed, it’s practically a death sentence.”