Paramilitary Games

As Rio de Janeiro prepared to host July’s Pan American Games, the largest sporting event in the hemisphere, private paramilitaries occupied favelas near two of the city’s main highways, in an apparent effort to impose security near crucial tourist infrastructure. A NACLA investigation, supported by the Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Fund, finds that for many favela residents, the militias are little better than the gangs or corrupt police they have replaced.

September 4, 2007

As Rio de Janeiro prepared to host July’s Pan American Games, the largest sporting event in the hemisphere, private paramilitaries occupied favelas near two of the city’s main highways, in an apparent effort to impose security near crucial tourist infrastructure. A NACLA investigation, supported by the Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Fund, finds that for many favela residents, the militias are little better than the gangs or corrupt police they have replaced.

When I first spoke with Dirce, she heaved a big sigh. I had called to ask if I could interview her about the milícia, or private paramilitary group, that controls the Rio de Janeiro favela where she lives.1 I interpreted her sigh as that of a favelada tired with yet another reporter asking about violence in her community. But when I meet the proud woman at her workplace, I quickly realize that it came more from fear of the milícia.

“I should have asked them for permission to speak to you,” Dirce says as we sit in her busy office in the city’s north zone, her small frame darting about in her seat. “If anyone asks, I will deny we met.”

At around 6:30 p.m. one evening in December, Dirce was startled in her home by screams from the street. She ran outside to find about 10 men surrounding Maria de Fátima, her daughter, one of them bashing her head against a wall. The men called her a bandida (criminal) and said they knew she was friends with a drug dealer. They threatened to kill both Maria de Fátima and Dirce but eventually let them go. The two escaped death, Dirce says, because of her own standing at the time as the head of a residents’ association and because many people witnessed the attack.

Such brutal use of force against alleged gang members and their friends and family is characteristic of Rio’s milícias, which are thought to be composed largely of retired, fired and moonlighting officers from the police and fire departments, both of which are military entities in Brazil. Rio statutes explicitly forbid police from moonlighting, but it is tolerated in practice.

These paramilitaries have occupied dozens of Rio’s slums in recent months with the purported aim of expelling drug traffickers. Estimates of the number of favelas under milícia control range from 58 to 92, out of some 700.2 The number more than doubled, from about 42 to 92, between April 2005 and October 2006, according to the municipal government. Sérgio Caldas, head of Rio’s Civil Police, says the number is somewhat lower but agrees that milícia occupations soared in that same period, before “stabilizing” this year.

Many of the new occupations took place in favelas near Rio’s main highways (see map below). For example, beginning in July last year, milícias invaded several favelas that form part of one of Rio’s most violent areas, the Maré complex, successfully seizing two of them, Roquete Pinto and Praia de Ramos. Maré, a set of 16 favelas home to some 134,000 people, is located between two of the city’s three main highways: the Linha Vermelha, the main route to the international airport, and Avenida Brasil, which leads west out of the city toward São Paulo.3 Other communities near these highways that the milicías took over include Manguinhos and Kelson’s, as well as Vila Joaniza, although the drug traffickers retook the latter. At the time of writing, clashes between gangs and milicías were continuing in Cordovil and Furquim Mendes.

The Linha Vermelha and Avenida Brasil are vital both to Cariocas and the tourists who flood into the city each day. But given how close they are to areas dominated by the gangs, they are also known as danger zones—especially after last December, when two gangs, in an unprecedented collaboration, stopped a long-distance bus full of Brazilian tourists and set it on fire, killing nine passengers. Many interpreted that incident as a rebuke to the state and to the milícias, but that sort of attack is rare and does not represent typical gang practice; in fact, the perpetrators of the bus attack were later killed by their own superiors. According to Alfredo Lopes of the Brazilian Hotel Industry Association, the gangs are too busy with drug trafficking and competing over territory to care about tourists, who are usually affected by the gangs only when violence spills out onto the highway during shootouts between gangs or with the police, he says.

In July, the highways will take on a very strategic role. From July 13 to 27, Rio will host the Pan American games, the largest sporting event in the Americas, with about 780,000 visitors expected. Major Pan installations (the Deodoro military sports center, Engenhão stadium, and the Pan American village) are located along or near the highways, which will be essential for transit between the installations, hotels, and major tourist spots, all of which are spread over a 62-mile radius.

The economic and social benefits of such sports mega-events are highly contested (see “World Cup Cricket and Caribbean Aspirations”). But the federal government, which is spending $900 million on the games, together with representatives of the tourism sector and many Cariocas, expect it to stimulate the local economy. It will also test Rio’s candidacy as a host for much larger events, like the 2012 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

With the Ministry of Tourism estimating that the Pan games will generate $1 billion in immediate revenues, good security is viewed as crucial. Researchers and activists from NGOs dealing with violence in Rio say many are speculating that the milícias’ recent incursions near the highways are no accident—implying that elements of the police or governmet are cooperating with the milícias to “clean up” tourist areas ahead of the games.

“Who exactly these [state and milícia] members are and how they are colluding is very difficult to say,” says Marianna Olinger, coordinator of the Violence Prevention Project at ProMundo, an NGO.


There are conflicting accounts of how the wave of milícia occupations began. Some say it started about three years ago, when a group of military police occupied Vila Operária, a community in Jacarepaguá in the west zone where an officer had been killed. After decimating the traffickers, the group took over businesses, not including drug trafficking, and remained there. Others argue that the hold the milícia have on Vila Operária is shaky and that the phenomenon really took off only some two years ago. Whatever the case, milícia occupations have spread like wild fire, according to Vinicius George, secretary-general of the Rio Civil Police Officers Union.

Marina Magessi, former chief of intelligence for the state anti-narcotics department and now a deputy in the National Congress, says the milícias are “generally welcomed by the community.”

“It’s a third way between the state and the drug traffickers,” she says. “[These are] places ruled for years by traffickers because of the absence of the state.”

Magessi is not alone in backing the milícia. Middle- and upper-class Cariocas, many of whom share the feeling that violence is spinning out of control, have also expressed their support.4 To date, no milícias have taken over the large and rapidly growing favelas Vidigal and Roçinha near the prosperous neighborhoods of the south zone, despite their being home to formidable drug gangs. This may be because south zone favelas are in a lesser state of abandonment—the state and NGOs maintain a higher profile there—and because they are seen as strategically less important, since they do not border the highways.

Nonetheless, violence has increasingly spilled out of the favelas onto the asfalto (asphalt), or Rio’s wealthier, paved areas, generating fear and an urgent search for decisive responses, both public and private.5 This climate of fear led Mayor César Maia to endorse the milícias, when he referred to them in December as “community self-defense forces.”

The milícias’ advance, he said, “shows that combating narcotrafficking in the communities isn’t a sophisticated question, but [one] of police presence and of motivation.”6

Many favelados hope the milícia will improve their communities. Even Dirce, despite the abuse she and her daughter suffered at the hands of milicianos, says some aspects of life in her community have improved.

“[The milicianos] arrived without a shot, beautifully,” she says. “You are at home and there isn’t the smell of marijuana [anymore], and there’s no more shootouts.”

But Dirce’s qualified appreciation for the milícia may just demonstrate how awful the alternatives are. Rio’s gangs are notorious for torture, summary executions, and extortion; selling drugs is often the least of the problems they pose. On the other hand, the police are often no better, raiding favelas, triggering gun battles with the gangs, and abusing residents with impunity. As long as public security is handled this way, the gangs threaten favela residents who aren’t affiliated with them—or who don’t want to be—with violence: their own and that of the state. The milícias, with their promises of eradicating the gangs, offer an immediate solution, imposing respect quickly. Typically dressed in black uniforms, including bulletproof vests and balaclavas, they look older and seem more disciplined than the drug traffickers.

“The first thing they impose, because they come from the military, is a more rigid order,” says Geraldo Tadeu, a sociologist and coordinator of the Research Group on Violence and Criminality at the Rio de Janeiro State University. “Because formal justice does not come to these communities, the milícias guarantee a situation for informally resolving conflicts.”

In this process, Tadeu says, milícias co-opt respected local community members, often those linked to the residents’ associations, in an attempt to legitimize their extra-judicial proceedings. But they did not invent this practice, which goes back at least 20 years.

“In general, the associations have been subjugated by the gangs as much as by the milícia,” Tadeu says. The leaders of these associations do not always cooperate—often risking their own safety—but the residents’ associations remain, since they are a useful way of accessing money from public institutions and NGOs.


Private security forces in Brazil mushroomed practically overnight during the military dictatorship (1964–85), beginning with the 1969 Federal Decree 1034, which required the use of private security in financial institutions.7 Since then, the market for private security forces has continued to soar for a variety of reasons—dissatisfaction with a corrupt police force, increased rates of violent crime since the end of the dictatorship, and a growth in crime consciousness. But while the rich can afford the services of the small, well-organized, regulated private security industry, it remains outside the grasp of the poor.

In the periphery of Rio and São Paulo, residents often rely on various entities—vigilante mobs, drug gangs, death squads, justiceiros, and policía mineira—to pursue criminals and maintain order. Vigilante mobs are more spontaneous and transitory than the milícia, while the gangs’ “security” comes from the fact that they are usually the best-armed faction in the community and have important interests to defend. Death squads, notorious in the Baixada Fluminense region and west zones of Rio’s metropolitan region, and justiceiros, or “justice makers,” in São Paulo resemble the milícia in that they protect property and impose order for money. But unlike the milícia, they are normally contracted by residents, often small business people; they do not impose themselves and collect dues from the entire community.

Another important local precedent are the seguranças (security men) that appeared 30 years ago in Rio das Pedras, a well-known favela in the west zone, situated on the other side of a lake from the nouveau riche district of Barra da Tijuca. Composed of small business people incensed by a scourge of theft and deadly attacks, these vigilantes “terrorized people,” according to Rodrigo Pimentel, a former military police officer turned writer and movie producer. The seguranças lowered crime rates and enforced a certain order, and by the 1990s, they were charging for their “service.” Police officers began to join their ranks, leading them to be referred to as polícia mineira, an allusion to the corrupt police of the former Federal District.8 Today the groups “survive from the respect they imposed,” as Pimental puts it. In contrast, he says, the milícias only want profit. “But in this process, they provoke social peace.”

But for many favelados, the milícias’ brand of peace is dubious at best—an imposed, outside authority that pits residents against displaced traffickers and their angered families. They might accept paying a small protection fee, just as the middle classes pay house and life insurance, if it means living and working without the fear of being shot. But with the drug trade ostensibly gone from the milícia-controlled favelas, so is an extremely lucrative business. As a result, the milícias extend their power far wider than the drug gangs by taking over vital, everyday businesses.

Milícias charge households and businesses fees ranging from $2.50 per month to $10 per week, depending on the community, size of business, and so on. But this is just a comfortable baseline for the average miliciano, who in his day job as a low-ranking police officer takes home a little more than $400 each month.9 The milícias also control a number of services, the most common being the vans that travel along routes often not covered by buses and the mototaxis (motorbike taxis). For this they take a fixed daily rate of $25. Then there’s gas delivery. A tank of gas normally sells for $19; the milícia might lower this to $18 and walk away with 20%. Connections to GatoNet, or illegal cable television, go for between $5 and $20, attractive compared to the official rate offered by the companies, which can easily top $50.10

Pimentel emphasizes that this is just a continuation of a well-established practice of the gangs. “Marçinho VB [a gang leader] in Dona Marta in the 1990s began the cable TV,” he says. “Then it started in Roçinha with the illegal RoçinhaNet, and they began charging for gas.”

The milícias initially drop the prices of these services in an effort to distinguish themselves from the gangs and to gain popularity. But once they have their foot in the door, the evidence suggests, they push up the prices and move into previously untapped areas. Dirce, for example, says the milícia now takes 10% on all house sales in her community. Other interviewees talk of being allowed to buy basic goods only within the territory controlled by the milícia.


Whatever receptiveness to milícias exists in the favelas is not universal. When I ask Marcos—a resident in Furquim Mendes, a north zone favela skirting Avenida Brasil where the milícia and the Comando Vermelho gang are at war—if his community favors the milícia, he asks if I’m crazy.

“What an ignorant question,” he says. “Are you in favor of being extorted?”

Residents’ hostility partly comes from the fact that the milicianos don’t necessarily live in the areas they control. As Marcos says, they are so unfamiliar with his community that they might as well “live in the United States.” This contradicts what Magessi, the congressional deputy, tells me. “It starts with the protection of themselves and their families,” she says.

Rio state governor Sérgio Cabral has publicly opposed the milícias, calling them a “parallel state” that cannot be tolerated. In so doing, he distanced himself from the tacit support offered by such figures as Deputy Magessi and Mayor Maia. Governor Cabral has moved to disentangle the political apparatus from policing—which is the “principal problem,” according to Vinicius George of the police union.

Cabral has assembled a team of competent technocrats known for respecting human rights to manage police and public security. And seven police precincts are investigating about 100 police officers accused of involvement with the milícia in an operation headed by Marta Rocha, chief of the 28th precinct. This is big news, according to police chief Sérgio Caldas, who says that under the previous administration, leaders within the Public Security Department and the military police had close ties to milicianos, keeping investigations from getting off the ground.11

Criminologists argue that Brazil’s public security practices must rely on more analysis and on investigative, rather than reactive, policing. As such, a recent partnership between the Rio state government and researchers on violence at the Rio state university could be a step in the right direction. And the quality of intelligence might be improved by the investments made by the federal government in security equipment for the Pan games—digital radios, monitoring equipment—that will remain in Rio after the event.

But the implications for Rio’s poor may be ominous. As the Pan games unfold, favelados are likely to find themselves more surveyed than ever.

“Every movement within these communities” will be monitored, says the hotel industry chief Alfredo Lopes.

If this seems excessive, Dirce sees it as a short-term necessity. “We really would like that the people who come from abroad to our Rio de Janeiro have real security,” she says. But the question that hangs in the air is how the situation will be in the near future.

“I am worried about tomorrow,” Dirce says. “How will things be for us in July when everything is over and everyone has gone home, when the Pan has finished? Will the milicianos be here ‘supporting the community’?”

Luke McLeod-Roberts is a journalist and researcher. He holds a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of London’s Institute for the Study of the Americas.

1. For safety reasons, pseudonyms are used for some interviewees.

2. Establishing an exact figure for the number of areas currently occupied by the paramilitaries is extremely difficult. According to an October 2006 report by the municipal government’s military cabinet, milícias control 92 favelas; others put the number at a much lower (but still significant) 58. Of Greater Rio’s 10 million inhabitants, 2 million are favelados.

3. According to the state government’s Institute of Public Security database, the 22nd Integrated Public Security Area, where Maré is located, has a homicide rate almost twice that of the metropolitan region and five times that of the south zone. See AISP%20-%2022.htm.

4. See, for example, Cartas dos Leitores, O Globo, February 7, 2007, p. 6. Public security is now deemed the principal problem facing Brazil, surpassing unemployment. Valdo Cruz, “Governo quer piso nacional para policial,” Folha de São Paulo, April 22, 2007, p.C6.

5. A study done by the Security and Intelligence Department of the Rio Public Prosecutor, together with the 2nd Infant and Youth Court, found that arrests of minors in the month of January in communities dominated by the milícias fell from 2005 to 2007, while arrests of minors involved in theft in the center and south zone increased during the same period. The change in the number of minors arrested in places where the milícias are active is explained by the paramilitaries’ summary justice and by the migration of criminals to other parts of the city. “Milícias mudam perfil do crime no Rio,” February 9, 2007,

6. Elenilce Bottari “À Margem da Lei,” O Globo, December 10, 2006, p. 19.

7. Teresa Caldeira, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 200.

8. The term policía mineira was first used to refer to the police of the Federal District, when Rio was still the capital (up until 1960). Their extortions were referred to as minando, or “mining” the population of their wealth, hence the derivative mineira.

9. This is particularly low at the national level. According to Folha de São Paulo, military police in São Paulo State are paid $619, while in Paraná they earn as much as $848. Valdo Cruz, “Governo quer piso nacional para policial,” April 22, 2007, p. C6. The minimum wage is less than $200 per month.

10. Sources on milícia income include the following: residents in communities where milícia operate, the Observatório de Favelas research NGO, Rodrigo Pimentel (ex–military police officer), Geraldo Tadeu (sociologist), and the Rede de Comunidades e Movimentos Contra a Violência.

11. NGOs and the press, which have largely been critical of the milícia, supported these investigations, while there have also been efforts to enliven the debate from some politicians. Earlier this year, state deputy Marcelo Freixo attempted to file an official inquiry on the milícia but was blocked on procedural grounds.


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