Rio has long been famous for the drug gangs who have made parts of the city no-go areas for outsiders including the police. Franco’s killing has focused attention on a different and parallel menace — Rio’s milícias, the murderous paramilitary gangs led by serving and former police officers that have emerged over the past two decades as a threat to public security and to the integrity of the state…
As their community grew, the favela of Rio das Pedras took shape with little intervention or interest from the state. With no formal police presence, security was provided by justiceiros, or vigilante gunmen. The favela expanded in the 1980s and 1990s and, as parts of it acquired the look of a regular city neighbourhood, police officers living there banded together to take over from the vigilantes, expelling, beating and killing drug dealers and other people they considered undesirables. They presented themselves to the local population as a peaceful alternative to the drug gangs. “That’s where the behaviour of the militiamen began, behind Tijuca in Rio das Pedras,” says Ubiratan Angelo, a former Rio state chief of police. “They used to say, no criminals live here — where the police live there’s no place for bandits. Then they began to dominate local businesses, the market for alternative transport and all the rest.”
Brazil has endured a crippling recession and a massive amount of political and social turmoil in the last 5-6 years. AFP has reported that domestic militias effectively control over half of Brazil’s largest city, Rio. The current group of militias are distinct from drug gangs, in that their primary means of income seems to be real estate and any involvement in the drug trade seems to be tangential or nonexistent.
The intriguing part of this story is the effect a power vacuum has on a populace. Even in the modern world, the response has been much the same as throughout history. Unfortunately for the anarchists, the inevitable result of a power vacuum is the rise of a power structure. The militias seem to be largely constituted of former police and law enforcement individuals as a response to the rampant drug gangs in the favelas since the 1970’s. There are lessons to be learned here as we continue to hurtle towards civil unrest and at the state and federal government level the control seems to be slipping. The creation of this essentially parallel government is a result of the government not being able to fulfill its obligation and provide safety, order and an acceptable level of dispute resolution. The people of Rio de Janeiro found another source for those…and one has to wonder as things deteriorate in the US if the population will be faced with similar questions. Are we so different here?