In Brazil, Rio under the cut of ultra-violent militias created by police

By Bruno Meyerfeld

Posted at 5:31 p.m. yesterday, updated at 8:16 p.m.

“I have the impression that they have always been there”, sighs Laura, a resident of Campo Grande, in western Rio de Janeiro. The young woman, who prefers not to give her true identity, remembers that at the beginning, “they” were content to patrol the streets of her neighborhood: “Ordinary young men who said they were there to keep us safe. “ Always with a gun on his belt.

Under this pretext, “They first taxed businesses, before taking control of everything that generates income”, she says : gas, electricity, transport, telephone, Internet, elevators … Beware of those who refuse to submit to their extortions. Neighbors disappear. In the suburbs of Rio, sometimes emerge charred corpses and human bones. “ Here, the militia is in command ”, asserts Laura, lapidary.

« Militia ” : the word gives chills from one end of Rio de Janeiro to the other. The term, used generically in Brazil, actually refers to a multitude of criminal organizations, most often founded by police officers. Over the years, they have carved out a real empire for themselves in the shadow of Corcovado, threatening democracy in Rio. Even, eventually, throughout Brazil.

Irresistible rise to power

The numbers are staggering. According to a 2020 study, coordinated by the Federal University Fluminense (UFF), militias control more than half of the metropolitan area of ​​Rio de Janeiro. Under their rule live 3.6 million inhabitants – a third of the local population: the equivalent of a city like Berlin. To understand this irresistible rise in power, you have to search the bowels of Rio, trace the complicated history of its police, its drug traffickers. and its unbridled town planning. The chronicle of an announced shipwreck.

At the end of the 1950s, Rio was a party. Brazil is industrializing at full speed. Edith Piaf, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich and Joséphine Baker parade on Avenida Atlantica and get drunk in the golden lounges of the Copacabana Palace. The one that will be, until 1960, the capital of Brazil wins its title of wonderful city, the “wonderful city”. But the miracle has its dark side. By the hundreds of thousands, the destitute of the interior of the country settle here to try their luck. The urban population is exploding. “For lack of space, all these people had no choice but to settle on the outskirts ”, explains Bruno Paes Manso, journalist and researcher, author of a remarkable book on the history of militias, A Republica das militias (“The republic of militias”, Todavia, 2020, not translated).

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In Brazil, Rio under the cut of ultra-violent militias created by police

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