Rio’s militias gain influence and sources of revenue

Police inspect a mass grave allegedly used by militias to dumb bodies (Photo: Police Release)

Police inspect a mass grave allegedly used by militias to dumb bodies (Photo: Police Release)

Far from the beaches and postcard views that have made Rio de Janeiro a tourist destination, there is a deepening malaise taking over the city’s suburbs and peripheries. In the security vacuum left by a nearly bankrupt state, mafia-like organizations known as militias have taken over and exert their will and influence on denizens just out of the public’s eye.

Police acted on 22 warrants Thursday targeting militias as part of the investigation in the death of a political candidate in Rio's Duque de Caxias region. According to authorities the murder of the candidate as well as five other homicides were conducted by the criminal organizations which focus on stealing gasoline from the Petrobras oil refinery.

Militias have long had multiple forms of income. The paramilitary organizations are often comprised of active and former police and started by taking over areas from drug traffickers and then charging locals and businesses protection fees.

However, in recent years, organizations have gone to great lengths to extend their sources of income. In April of this year, two buildings built illegally by criminals collapsed, leaving many dead and injured. Similarly, illicit militia-built buildings are typical throughout Rio de Janeiro, and police estimate that the enterprise generates millions in Reals for the criminal organizations.

Besides illegal construction and protection rackets, militias have also made money selling fake cigarettes and charging for illegal utilities. But Thursday's operation demonstrating the involvement of the militia’s in gas siphoning from the Petrobras plant shows how they operate. The paramilitary organizations move into an area and then exploit whatever legitimate businesses operate in the area. In July dozens were arrested for extorting Petrobras contractors in Itaborai, a city located just outside the capital.

Police conducted an operation Thursday investigation militias involved with stealing gas from a local Petrobras facility (Photo: Police Release)

Police conducted an operation Thursday investigation militias involved with stealing gas from a local Petrobras facility (Photo: Police Release)

Once in an area should the militias face any resistance, whether, by other gangs or politicians, their response is the same: assassination. Besides Thursday's investigation into the killing of a political candidate in Duque de Caxias, police have dozens of ongoing cases involving politicians killed for opposing the militias. Perhaps the most famous example being that of Marielle Franco who police alleged was killed by an ex-police officer acting on orders from one the organizations.

Police discovered a mass grave Wednesday in Rio’s Baixada Fluminense featuring an unknown number of bodies which investigators say are victims of a local militia group. Police took bones and clothing from the site to be forensically inspected but needed to return Thursday due to the sheer quantity of corpses found.

It is not the first time that police have found mass graves which they say are caused by the criminal organizations. At least since the start of the year, three other sites have been found by authorities. The total number of deaths caused by militias is unknown.