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‘Militias are Involved in Drug Trafficking and Operate in Rio’s Wealthy Districts’ [INTERVIEW]

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For the original article in Portuguese by Isaías Dalle of the Perseu Abramo Foundation published by Revista Fórum click here.

Thainã de Medeiros, a member of Coletivo Papo Reto—a favela-based media collective fighting against police brutality—reveals changes to how [off-duty vigilante police] militias are operating in Rio de Janeiro.

Militias have taken their violent, oppressive, and illegal workings beyond their traditional territories in favelas and are now present in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, according to Thainã de Medeiros—one of the leaders of Coletivo Papo Reto, a media collective that fights against police brutality in Complexo do Alemão, in Rio’s North Zone. They are the so-called “small militias,” which originate from traditional militia groups.

Medeiros notes that militias are already involved in drug trafficking in some of the areas in which they operate, despite the fact that many militia groups initially took control of communities by using a conservative and moralistic discourse—promising, among other things, to put an end to the drug trade in favelas.

Medeiros is a museologist and journalist. He is one of the founders of Coletivo Papo Reto, which was created towards the end of 2013 to support the victims of a series of landslides in Complexo do Alemão. The group discovered the potential of social networks to help residents protect themselves from illegal actions by the Civil and Military Police. Coletivo Papo Reto is part of the Reconexão Periferias (Re-Connecting the Periphery) project, organized by the Perseu Abramo Foundation.

Medeiros emphasizes that government initiatives such as Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) have politically and territorially strengthened the militias. In areas controlled by militias, it is difficult to organize groups with a social or political focus; anyone who does so risks death.

Check out excerpts from the interview below:

Isaías Dalle: Tell us about the origins of Coletivo Papo Reto.

Thainã Medeiros: When we created the group, we were living under military occupation in Complexo do Alemão. Previously, we were all working separately, doing our own thing. Then, at the end of 2013, torrential rains hit Complexo do Alemão and many houses were destroyed by landslides. So we got together to help the families affected. This helped us to see how we could use social media as a mobilization tool. This was in December 2013. Then, in 2014, we decided to keep campaigning, this time focusing on state violence. We had UPPs and lots of human rights violations taking place here so we decided to work together on that.

How do you operate across different communities and how do you share information?

A lot happens on WhatsApp. We have WhatsApp groups where we share information and talk to residents. Residents talk to each other on these groups too and these conversations contain a lot of material, a lot of content. We collect content from WhatsApp, verify the information, and go to the scene to understand what’s going on. This is how we communicate as a network.

By sharing messages like ‘Be careful, police violence reported in x location’?

Exactly. This is something that favela residents do naturally. We don’t need to ask people to share these warnings: they just go ahead and do it. This provides good content for us.

What’s the situation with militias in Complexo do Alemão? Are militias the main cause of violence against residents?

Here in Complexo do Alemão, there’s only one drug trafficking gang in operation (the Comando Vermelho, or “Red Command”). Militias are far away from here, in fact. We are in Rio’s North Zone. Militias operate mostly in the West Zone. There’s a strong militia presence in Bangu (in the West Zone) and in the Baixada Fluminense (in Greater Rio). The only militia group that we are aware of in the North Zone is located in a small part of Complexo da Maré. Here in Complexo do Alemão, we’ve only ever had one gang in operation and it covers a huge territory so it would be very difficult for another group to take control.

It would take a big war to make that happen…

Exactly.

Are there groups like Coletivo Papo Reto based in Complexo da Maré? Are you in contact with them?

I know some, yes, but they’re groups working in a part of Maré that’s not under militia control. If you live in a militia-controlled area, it’s normal to have a kind of code of silence. It’s very difficult to interview someone living in one of those areas. Militias start by fining locals. You pay a fee on your cooking gas, a fee to guarantee your security—it’s a lot like a mafia. For example, if you have a business, you have to pay a sum of money to the militia to prevent your business from being robbed. So the militias are intimately involved in residents’ lives. In some areas, you have to pay a fee to the militia if you want to have a party at your house. They are very diplomatic when it comes to intimidation. They don’t show off with acts of violence but they make their message clear: people simply go missing and the bodies are never found. Everyone knows what happened. So it’s really hard. I know people in Maré, including people who live in militia-controlled areas who have had family members killed by the militia. And they don’t report it. It’s a whole other level of violence; it’s really heavy.

This might be a silly question but for people living outside of these areas who don’t know what it’s like to live there, which would you say is better—or less bad: living in an area controlled by militias or by drug gangs? Or is there no difference?

I’ve never lived in an area controlled by militias but according to accounts from people who live in these areas, I do know that the code of silence is much stronger. When militias first move into an area, they come in saying that they’re going to get rid of drug trafficking, that they’re going to create a self-governing system, that residents will unite and that there will be no more violence. Then they end up charging people in order to get rid of violence—violence that they, themselves, actually create. They’re even selling drugs these days. Think about it: drug trafficking is a lucrative business—but you can only make money from it by selling drugs. Whoever wants to buy drugs can buy them, it’s their choice. If you live in an area controlled by militias, however, you have to pay them, whether or not you use drugs. As for me, I pass by lots of armed people on my way to and from home and no one bothers me. But if I were living in a militia-controlled area, I’d have to pay a fee. Imagine what that’s like for very poor people—what a difficult situation to be in. But there’s something else you have to deal with: the militias go inside your home, they get involved in your private life. If you want to host a party, you have to pay them. That never happens here in Complexo do Alemão. Here, we have parties in the street. It’s very common to see residents close off part of a street. They’ll put up a trampoline in the street for their kid’s party. You don’t see this happen in militia areas. Some more conservative people might call the militia’s way of operating more organized, but it’s a form of oppression. People are killed and never seen again. A group like Coletivo Papo Reto would never be able to exist in a militia-controlled area. We’d already be dead.

So it’s not possible to organize groups like Coletivo Papo Reto with either political or social motives in militia-controlled areas?

No, not as far as I know. Activists who live in militia-controlled areas often work in other neighborhoods—not in their own. Activists might work in other parts of the favela but they don’t meet in their own neighborhoods. They’re too scared. The only kind of events that are organized in militia-controlled areas are apolitical ones, like Children’s Day parties—nothing more than that. The militias have a lot of political control over these areas. Politicians often find it important to get to know the head of the militia in their area. Let’s suppose that I’m a candidate for public office: it’s helpful if I can manage to be the only one who gets permission from the militia to go and campaign in the area, preventing my opponents from doing so. This will win me lots of votes and support. The assassination of Marielle Franco has something to do with this. The suspects in her murder are militia members with connections to city councilors, state representatives, and, apparently, even the president. It’s a complicated area and no one wants to get involved. People who live in these areas really don’t have a voice.

Have you noticed any difference in militia activities since Marielle Franco’s assassination or, later, with the election of Bolsonaro as president?

I haven’t mentioned this yet but I imagine lots of people know it already: militias are composed of Civil and Military police officers, firefighters, security guards, and other people involved in security work. Militias are formed by the police, though we know that young people from favelas also get involved in these organizations. Here in Complexo do Alemão, after the presidential election, police officers went out onto the street shooting into the air, celebrating [Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro’s victory. This says a lot. I’d only ever seen that kind of thing in a video about the Islamic State. It’s important to remember: what happened when the UPPs were operating in Complexo do Alemão for all those years? The UPPs in Complexo do Alemão meant that we had lots of police officers in the favela 24/7. How many of those police officers had some kind of relationship with the militias? How many of those police officers saw the opportunity to bring militias into Complexo do Alemão? Can you imagine the government giving a criminal faction support to enter a favela? If you stop to recall that militias are formed by police officers and the government pays police officers, you’ll start to realize that the Brazilian government and the state of Rio de Janeiro are implicated in the creation of militias. I should add that while the UPPs were in operation here, you would sometimes see militia-related graffiti on the walls in Complexo do Alemão. There were also some attempts to extort business owners, just like the militia does.

So you’re saying that some people tried to bring militias to Complexo do Alemão via the UPPs, but that the attempt failed because of the strong presence of the drug trade?


It’s a hard claim to make because I don’t have proof. But we have witnessed attempts to implement several common militia practices here. They tried to put a fine on cooking gas… Some of these attempts made me wonder whether the UPPs were a way of trying to bring militias into Complexo do Alemão. I’m wondering whether the military occupation here and in Complexo da Maré, followed by the UPPs, allowed the militias to gain political strength to the point that they could assassinate Marielle Franco and later be praised by the president of Brazil. I think that we should take this into consideration. We should recall that these militias initially appeared with a deeply conservative, moralistic discourse, saying that they would clean things up and get rid of the drug trade—all in the name of protecting the “Brazilian family.” We’ve now seen this kind of discourse result in the election of President Bolsonaro.

There’s also something else going on in Rio de Janeiro called the “small militia.”

What’s the ‘small militia?’

You can see it in Rio’s South Zone and in downtown Rio. You’ll see a security guard in the street wearing a jacket that says “Support.” Lots of these guys are from the militias. They act just like the mafia: they come and speak to business owners. If the owner doesn’t collaborate, coincidentally, the business will be robbed that same day. The guy comes back the next day and offers “protection” in return for a set fee.

Does this kind of thing happen even in areas controlled by drug gangs?

I’m not talking about favelas right now. I’m talking about the city’s wealthier areas. I’m talking about Leblon [in Rio’s South Zone], or Cinelândia and Largo da Carioca in downtown Rio. What’s their trick? Why do middle-class people decide to contract the services of militias? They do it because of the narrative that Rio is an extremely dangerous city. They buy into the narrative that that black guy walking down the street is going to rob them. So they pay these guys to get rid of black people. They’re scared of poor people. They’re scared of favelas. Look, this was even reported in the newspapers: last year, in the neighborhood of Laranjeiras, people came offering a “protection service” for residents. Afterwards, residents had a meeting and decided to refuse. The next day, a branch of Itaú bank was robbed in the neighborhood. Look it up by Googling “robbery Itaú Laranjeiras.” The bank was robbed. The following day, those guys were back. They said, “Hey, are you sure you don’t want to pay for our protection service?” So you can see how this intimidation works. And this was in Rio’s South Zone.