Rio de Janeiro's militia on the rise (again)

Initially, the militias secured territory, guaranteed law and order, and achieved some legitimacy. But they have become ruthless criminal gangs, competing with those of drug traffickers. There is some uncertainty about when or where the first militia groups first emerged. Some analysts believe that the militia were first founded in the 1990s by military police living in gang-infested communities.

The militia first made headlines in early 2000, when a string of media stories reported on their illegal activities that included charging businesses and civilians for "security services". Unlike social cleansing and extermination groups, which had existed in Brazil for decades, the militia initially restricted their activities to expelling gangsters and defending neighbourhoods from drug trafficking.

The militia gradually extended their power and influence. They did this by quietly diversifying their income streams. Not only did they expand extortion rackets to all manner of businesses, but they also started charging fees for pirated TV, electricity and water services, and Internet connections. Some groups also levied fees on informal transport services, evicted populations to clear land for realtors, and brokered access to public housing programs such as Minha Casa Minha Vida. In time, militia groups also started infiltrating municipal politics, including by getting out the vote at gunpoint.

Counter-militia measures have focused almost exclusively on policing activities, including arresting and prosecuting the leadership of Rio's dozens of illegal groups. Some of these counter-militia efforts have been criticized for being half-hazard and even counter-productive. Take the case of the April 2018 operation that resulted in the arrest of 159 suspected militia attending a party in Santa Cruz, in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro. More than 40 police officers were involved in the nighttime raid. Not only did the militia leader escape, at least 138 of the suspects were released the next days due to lack of evidence. Neither periodic police sweeps or large-scale community policing efforts (such as the pacification police units) have slowed the advance of militia. And there are signs the militia problem could even worsen. 

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