Vigilante Militias Spread Across Rio de Janeiro: Homicides in the West Zone Increase by 44% Highlighting a New Criminal Landscape Where Drug Traffickers and Militias Collide

Charred bus shells litter the landscape between the Antares and Cesarão favelas in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro; approximately 35 buses were torched in the area, following the death of a key militia leader. Photo: Reproduction from social media
Charred bus shells litter the landscape between the Antares and Cesarão favelas in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro; approximately 35 buses were torched in the area, following the death of a key militia leader. Photo: Reproduction from social media

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The phenomenon of police officers operating outside the law and organizing armed groups in Rio de Janeiro is not a recent one, with records dating back to at least the 1950s. Extermination groups, involving police officers, firefighters, and municipal guards, active or retired, have been operating for decades in the Baixada Fluminense and other areas of Greater Rio. These groups presented themselves as community protectors, as private guarantors of public security. In exchange, they enforced security fees, initially optional, to be paid by the residents of the “protected” territories. Over time, these fees became mandatory, enforced through threats, violence, and even death against those who refuse to comply. Additionally, militias have expanded their activities to include public services and illegal businesses, such as: alternative transportation, provided by vans; clandestine Internet and cable television service, known as “gatonet“; monopoly of the supply of cooking gas; and real estate development. It is well known that the actions and rapid expansion of these paramilitary groups have contributed to increased violence and corruption in Rio de Janeiro.
Number of legalized units (2009-2020) by Administrative Region and militias in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Map: Geni/UFF
Number of legalized units (2009-2020) by Administrative Region and militias in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Map: GENI/UFF

The Emergence of the Militia

In this article, we explore the challenges and potential strategies for addressing the growth of militias in Rio de Janeiro, drawing insights from Silvia Ramos, a sociologist and coordinator of the Center for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship (CESeC).

Ramos explains that the emergence of militias occurred in the 1950s, with extermination groups. In the 2000s, it took on a new guise. Still comprised of law enforcement agents or former agents, militias purportedly aimed to “provide” protection. A counter-narrative was thus created, based on the presence of armed men and threats to law offenders by the militia, suggesting that in the spaces they dominated there would be no circulation of drug dealers or drug sales. Therefore, these favelas and working-class neighborhoods were portrayed as less dangerous, free of shootings or confrontations with the police. Initially, State agents colluding with militias would go door-to-door collecting voluntary security fees from residents. However, “the fees became mandatory and those who did not pay were threatened… and those who did not heed the threats were killed,” Ramos describes.

With this, a new façade emerged for the criminal network. According to Ramos, militias began to involve politicians, such as Natalino and Jerominho, who were linked to the exploitation of alternative transportation in the West Zone. Ramos emphasizes that many state deputies were not militia members themselves, but were elected in areas dominated by the militia.

Who are the members of the Braga family militia? Source: Folha de São Paulo
Who are the members of the Braga family militia? Source: Folha de São Paulo

“Starting in 2014, the phase where militias were solely composed of police officers came to an end, and militia members began taking over areas previously controlled by drug traffickers, one of the first being Três Pontes, in the West Zone. Carlinhos Três Pontes entered first, followed by his brothers, Ecko, and Zinho [leader of Rio’s largest militia].” — Silvia Ramos

According to the sociologist, there was a fragmentation that resulted in a dispute between the militia and other powers, such as the Red Command (CV), a prominent drug trafficking gang, leading to alliances with its rival faction, the Pure Third Command (TCP). Consequently, entire areas, especially in the West Zone and the Baixada Fluminense, are exposed to armed conflicts between militias and other criminal factions.

“These disputes result in high mortality rates. Homicide rates from January to September 2023, compared to January to September 2022, in the two areas of the West Zone, saw an increase in intentional, violent deaths of over 150%, indicating preexisting dynamics.” — Silvia Ramos

Another complicating factor was the fragmentation of the militia in the West Zone, with devastating effects on the lives of residents. Rival militia gangs began to compete for territories and power. This power struggle translates into frequent shootouts, acts of violence, and summary executions. New alliances and enemies, creating a complex scenario among different groups, make the war between factions even more unpredictable and lethal. This also results in an arms race—the growing caliber and lethality of weapons employed by gangs—in a constant pursuit to eliminate rivals. As firepower intensifies, so does the ability of these weapons to cause harm.

Furthermore, the fragmentation of the militia, much like that of traditional drug trafficking gangs, instills constant insecurity among the population, who live in a perpetual state of alert and fear amidst frequent shootouts and attempted territorial invasions that can occur at any moment. The loss of lives is often observed, with significant repercussions on the mental health of residents.

The Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the Militias

Some public authorities have taken a combative stance against militias. In 2008, then-State Deputy Marcelo Freixo chaired the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the Militias (the Militias CPI), which resulted in the arrest of 246 members of the criminal organization.

The CPI was implemented after journalists from the newspaper O Dia were tortured upon being discovered reporting on the militia in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro.

“The amount of evidence and proof of the involvement of police officers, former police officers, and politicians in militia groups was surprising. Many were arrested, politicians lost their mandates. It was impressive.” — Silvia Ramos

Silvia emphasizes the need to reconsider how we combat criminal organizations.

“You have to disrupt and destabilize the structure, the flow, not just chop off the heads, and certainly not the ends. If you wage this war piecemeal and kill a bunch of people in high-profile operations… there, at the ends, piecemeal… they fill up the void with new people in no time… Even cutting off the heads doesn’t stop this flow.”— Silvia Ramos

The sociologist argues that a new Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the Militias (CPI) could produce new outcomes in combating the organized group. She emphasizes the importance of the police working intelligently, conducting investigations that dismantle the militia’s structures.

“Of course, we wonder how this will be done in a Legislative Assembly where militias and militia groups wield far greater power today than they did in 2008. Will it move forward? But, yes, a thorough scan would need to be conducted: to delve in, understand what’s really happening, make it public, make arrests, and above all, follow the money, dismantle arrangements… It’s futile to kill people at the entrances or inside favelas, going in with armored vehicles and helicopters if the old schemes persist. As a matter of fact, quite often, a police corruption scheme.” — Silvia Ramos

The Relationship Between the Militia and Red Command

In the territorial disputes that led to conflicts across Rio de Janeiro, the initial interaction between the militia and drug trafficking factions occurred with the Pure Third Command. Both joined forces to seize territories and markets from the Red Command, the largest drug trafficking group in the state of Rio de Janeiro. However, as Ramos emphasizes, this is a new and highly complex phenomenon. Consequently, in some locations, cross-fertilization between militias and the Red Command have been observed. She highlights the collaboration of traffickers joining militias and militia members integrating into drug trafficking.

“What we have today is an incredibly complex scenario of ‘militiazation’ of drug factions and ‘trafficization’ of militias. We’re witnessing a contamination of practices and norms.” — Silvia Ramos

The sociologist explains that, in practice, the militia has begun to adopt typical drug trafficking schemes, such as appointing a manager of operations and selling drugs. Conversely, drug traffickers have started to exploit the sale of services, monopolizing certain products and compelling residents to exclusively purchase those products from drug traffickers. According to the Map of Armed Groups, a study conducted by the Fogo Cruzado Institute and the Fluminense Federal University’s Study Group on the New Illegalities (GENI/UFF), the militia experienced a 19.3% reduction in territorial dominance in Rio de Janeiro, followed by the Pure Third Command (TCP) with 13%, and the Friends of Friends faction (ADA) registering a 16.7% decrease. On the other hand, the Red Command advanced and recorded an 8.4% increase in territorial dominance between 2022 and 2023. The militias ceded ground to the Red Command, which concentrated 51.9% of the territories controlled by armed groups in the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan region in 2023.

Historical Map of Armed Groups in Rio de Janeiro. Map: Fogo Cruzado Institute
Historical Map of Armed Groups in Rio de Janeiro. Source: Fogo Cruzado Institute
Militiaman Zinho, arrested. Photo: Reproduction
Militiaman Zinho, arrested. Photo: Reproduction

Militia member Luiz Antonio da Silva Braga, known as Zinho, surrendered to the police on Christmas Eve. He is the primary leader of the militia operating in the West Zone and the most wanted militia member in the state. Antônio Carlos dos Santos Pinto, known as Pit, 44, Zinho’s right-hand man, was killed during a police operation in the Três Pontes community. When asked whether she believed it to be possible to dismantle the militia, Silvia Ramos expressed optimism, but only through proactive police intelligence actions and investigations.

Number of Homicides in Rio’s West Zone Rises in 2023

In 2023, Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone witnessed intense conflict between the Red Command and the militias, resulting in a significant surge in violence. The bus attacks in October underscored the militias’ dominance in the West Zone, enforcing security fees and controlling the sale of cooking gas, thus subjugating the local population. The numbers paint a grim picture: from January to December 2023, the West Zone and parts of the North Zone recorded 733 homicides, a 44% increase compared to the same period in 2022. In September alone, the death toll reached 75, more than double the number recorded in the same month the previous year.

In 2023, Rio de Janeiro was marked by numerous conflicts instigated by the militias, casting doubt on the state government’s public security efforts. Following the widely-publicized bus attacks, the government made efforts to curb both the militias and drug trafficking in the metropolitan area. However, Silvia Ramos views the initiative as “lacking consistency.”

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