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BRAZIL: Paramilitary Militias Fuel the Violence

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 12 2007 (IPS) - The shooting deaths of nine people Sunday, including a member of the military police, illustrated a change in Rio de Janeiro’s chronic violent crime, with the expansion of paramilitary militias that fight the drug gangs for control of the favelas.

The militias, illegal groups headed by retired and active police officers, reportedly control more than 90 of Rio de Janeiro’s 700 favelas or shantytowns, which are home to one-third of the city’s six million people.

Calling themselves “community self-defence” forces, the groups began to grow and multiply last year, but only attracted significant media attention in late December, when drug traffickers unleashed a wave of attacks against police officers, police stations and buses.

The torching of a bus, in which eight passengers burned to death, shook the country and revealed the mortal struggle between organised crime, which has seized control of the favelas in the last two decades, and the paramilitary groups that have wrested from them control over some of the shantytowns.

Besides forcing the drug traffickers out and killing criminal suspects, the militias are accused of charging local residents “insurance” for security, exploiting the irregular transport business involving vans that can negotiate the narrow streets of the favelas, and administering and profiting from illegal hook-ups to the power grid and cable TV.

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Cesar Maia admits that the militias are illegal, but sees them as a lesser evil than drug trafficking gangs. He has stopped short of publicly expressing his support for them, but he frequently states that cracking down on these groups would encourage a comeback by the drug traffickers.

Local residents initially supported the militias, because they drive out criminal elements. But then they began to realise that the arbitrary violence has continued, merely shifting hands, Rubem Cesar Fernandes, director of Viva Rio, told IPS. His organisation is the biggest NGO active in Rio de Janeiro’s slums, with around 1,200 staff members and volunteers working on a broad range of projects.

The latest violent clashes that have led to dozens of deaths since December indicate that people in the favelas are now caught in the crossfire between three groups: drug traffickers, the police and the paramilitary militias.

Sunday’s shootout occurred in Kelson’s favela, which has been occupied by a militia since December. The traffickers who had been driven out launched a counter-attack on Sunday, killing a military police officer, who was reportedly a militia leader, and three of his supposed associates. But a police patrol ambushed the attackers and opened fire on one of their vehicles, killing five people.

The militias are a new face of the death squads that have existed in Brazil for at least four decades, said Fernandes. They fight drug traffickers, sometimes using the drug gangs’ tactics, such as seizing control over entire favelas.

Their growth partly responds to a need for self-defence, because the drug trafficking gangs have begun to target the police in Rio de Janeiro in recent years, said Fernandes.

Last month, Mayor Maia circulated a message from a member of a paramilitary militia, justifying his participation in the group by the argument that “a police officer has to conceal his identity to move around the city, he has to hide his family.” To keep safe, police officers would have to live in gated condominium complexes, but the low wages they earn make that impossible.

The alternative, then, is “to convert the communities where they live into ‘gated condominiums’, from a security standpoint,” said the message.

But the new governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral, takes a different stance. He says the “parallel power” exercised in the favelas by the militias and the drug trafficking gangs is unacceptable, and has promised to crack down on the paramilitary groups. Military police chief Ubiratan de Oliveira agrees that there can be no compromise with illegal armed groups.

In Brazil, public safety is the responsibility of state governments, which have control over two independent forces: the military police, which police the streets, and the civil police, which investigate crimes.

“It is unlikely that the authorities will really confront the militias,” because there is a tendency to “work things out with colleagues” and to see them as allies in the fight against crime, said Fernandes. However, the governor’s decision could lead to a reaction that might curb the expansion of the militias, without actually doing away with them, he added.

Gaining territorial control over the favelas enables the militias to exploit the local market, such as illegal transport networks and other services like the distribution of cooking gas, for which they charge a tax. They are also beginning to get involved in the real estate business, renting housing units and selling lots, and in gambling activities like slot machines, said Fernandes.

So far, they are not involved in the drug trade, because their legitimacy and whatever popular support they enjoy are based on their record of driving out drug traffickers, said the activist. But, he argued, there are no guarantees that, as groups involved in illegal activities, they will not eventually branch out into that area.

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