Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Paramilitary Militias Contaminate Politics

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 4 2008 (IPS) - The results of the October municipal elections “will not be legitimate” in this Brazilian city, because 1.7 million local residents live in communities where the conditions are not in place for them to vote freely, city councillor Andrea Gouvea Vieira told IPS.

She made that observation after an incident that shook Brazil and made international headlines after it was first reported on Sunday.

The members of a journalistic team working undercover for the O Dia newspaper in a Rio de Janeiro slum controlled by one of the paramilitary groups known locally as “militias” were seized and tortured on May 14.

The team, made up of a female reporter, a photojournalist and their driver, lived for two weeks as ordinary residents of the Batán favela (shantytown) on the west side of Rio de Janeiro while producing a report on the way the local militia governed the neighbourhood.

But after they were identified as reporters, they were captured and for nearly eight hours they were beaten, given electric shocks, nearly suffocated with plastic bags, and threatened with murder. They were finally released in the early hours of the morning, and were given back their money and equipment.

The Rio de Janeiro state security secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, acknowledged that active members of the civilian and military police forces form part of the paramilitary groups that control a number of the city’s favelas. But he said it was hard to crack down on the phenomenon because of the difficulties in proving what is happening.

The existence of “territories occupied by this kind of crime,” which involves “personnel from the police, the justice system and the regional legislature,” creates a serious situation that makes it impossible to hold free, democratic elections in Rio de Janeiro, said Gouvea Vieira.

The militias, which are generally commanded by active or retired police officers, rule 63 favelas, according to the Rio de Janeiro city government. Beltrame said that at one point there were 122 such groups, but that they were reduced to “less than 100” since early 2007.

Other favelas are under the control of drug trafficking gangs, which are “clearly defined as criminal groups” and are feared and rejected, said Gouvea Vieira.

But the situation is different in the case of the members of the militias, who are generally accepted by society and are in many cases law enforcement agents, she pointed out.

The militias emerged in recent years under the pretext of fighting drug trafficking. But they actually became new players in the drug trade, while imposing their own rules and demanding that local residents and shopkeepers pay for illegally provided services like security, transportation, electricity, cooking gas and cable TV.

The armed groups control the favelas, where they operate as “political fiefdoms,” for electoral aims as well, said Gouvea Vieira.

In Rio de Janeiro, “it is said that three city councillors belong to the militias” and that the goal is to increase the number of representatives threefold this year, said Gouvea Vieira, a reporter who was elected to the 50-member city council in 2004 for the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).

The case of the tortured undercover journalists caused an outcry, not only because of the brutality involved but also because of the blow dealt to freedom of the press.

The militias also affect “people’s right to move about freely,” said Gouvea Vieira. The movements of the 1.7 million people estimated to live in neighbourhoods under the direct control of the paramilitary militias are restricted, and outsiders “cannot freely enter the communities,” she said.

Other problems are police brutality, the infiltration of criminals in government institutions, and widespread impunity. The police in the state of Rio de Janeiro have a reputation of being among the most violent in the world.

Amnesty International reported that in 2007, at least 1,260 people in the state were killed by the police, according to official figures. The deaths were all officially categorised as the result of armed resistance or firefights with the police.

Alvaro Lins, a former civilian police chief for the state of Rio de Janeiro, was arrested last Thursday by the federal police and accused of heading a gang made up of other police officers, and of abuse of functions, money laundering, corruption and smuggling. But he was released two days later under the immunity from prosecution that he enjoys as a state legislator.

Nearly half of the 70 members of the Rio de Janeiro state legislature are facing legal charges for a variety of crimes, although they are protected by their parliamentary immunity.

The case of the O Dia reporters is just the latest attack suffered by the press. Seven years ago, veteran investigative journalist Tim Lopes was killed by a drug trafficking gang in a favela where he was gathering information for coverage of the local crime scene.

Since the 1990s, the high levels of violence have curbed the work of reporters in favelas, which are depicted in the news as “territories at war,” because the risks make it impossible to “report on other aspects of life in those neighbourhoods,” Anabela Paiva, co-author of the study “Media and Violence”, told IPS.

Reporters, who used to be seen as “spokespersons who could help the community, are now considered enemies,” and without access to the favelas, they have lost their insider sources and must base their coverage on police reports and the accounts of outside observers, said the journalist.

The result is that public opinion sees the favelas as a world apart – a world of crime, devoid of the familiar aspects of day-to-day life.

The police are involved in more than half of all violent incidents reported by the media, said Paiva, who coordinates research on the media and violence at the Centre for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship (CESEC) of the Candido Mendes University in Rio de Janeiro.

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