In March 2018, news of the assassination of Marielle Franco reverberated around the world. As the first black, queer woman from a favela to be elected to Rio City Council, Franco was an important voice for the people of her marginalised community in Maré, northern Rio. Like her political mentor, the then state (now federal) congressman Marcelo Freixo, Franco was well-known for speaking out against police brutality and killings carried out by members of paramilitary groups like the ones believed to have shot Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes nine times in cold blood. Their deaths were first posted to the Fogo Cruzado (‘Cross-fire’) app before it was even known to anyone that they were the victims. The platform connects users to a database of reported firearms discharges, curated by a team of public safety, IT and communications specialists, which allows people to report and track high-risk situations and areas in real time.
A few minutes later, another tip revealed that the victims had been a councilwoman from the Socialism and Liberty Party and her driver, which led the app’s team to inform the police and the media. However, it took authorities nearly a year before they arrested retired military police officer Ronnie Lessa, the alleged shooter, and Élcio Vieira de Queiroz, a former police officer and alleged getaway driver. Although both men have been charged with the murders, there is still no word on who actually ordered the shooting. However, investigators have made a number of important discoveries: both men are thought to be members of a notorious militia called the Crime Bureau; Lessa’s daughter used to date one of the sons of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, and the two families used to live in the same gated community in Rio.
A photograph of Vieira de Queiroz and Bolsonaro from 2011 has also emerged, and police searching an apartment of a friend of one of the suspects discovered the largest haul of illegal weapons ever seized in Rio.
Although no clear motive can be directly established between any one militia and Franco’s political work, the fact the men charged were police officers is noteworthy. In addition, Lessa often conducted online research in order to find left-wing targets under the guise of liberating and protecting communities. For many observers, this all points to some level of collusion from the corridors of power.
Rio’s militias – paramilitary groups which usually comprise former and serving police officers, firefighters, prison wardens and private security guards working a second job to supplement their incomes – may have gained global notoriety following the deaths of Franco and Gomes, but they have been responsible for the deaths of many more people. “They market themselves as informal ‘private security firms’ that keep local communities safe from violent drug gangs and other criminals,” explains Orlando Zaccone, a well-known anti-fascist police officer. However, these militias actually cause much of the violence that ravages Brazilian cities, and those who refuse to pay for their services or who oppose their practices can find themselves in the crosshairs.
In a country which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, 2017 was the worst on record, with 65,602 homicides, an increase of 4.2 per cent on the previous year and equivalent to 31.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. That is ten times the European average and over five times the number of homicides committed in the United States.
Notably, 75.5 per cent of all victims were young men of colour, which reflects the impact of poverty and organised crime on the marginalised communities that populate Brazil’s favelas. As Brazil’s high murder rate goes to show, militarised policing and widespread vigilantism does not help to reduce crime; if anything, it has made things worse.
“Today, just like narcotraffickers, militias control territories that span across cities and represent illegal business endeavours in sectors ranging from mass transport to waste disposal, land-grabbing and real estate, slot machines, energy, communications and ironically, even drugs,” says Zaccone.
Though regulated by national laws, Brazil’s police are an ostensive regional security force, commanded by each state’s governor, and divided between an investigative civil force and a patrolling military force. Since the 1960s, death squads have been present in both forces; in the 1990s– after decades of some police officers acting with total impunity – the militias were spawned in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
The creator of the Fogo Cruzado app and personal friend of Marielle Franco’s, researcher and The Intercept Brasil journalist Cecília Olliveira, believes the militias are not merely a parallel power to the state. Largely headed by public (and publicly funded) officials and politicians, the militias often end up providing services such as water, healthcare and transport in areas where public services are either inadequate or totally absent. As a result, Olliveria says: “They are the state itself, composed of agents of the state and paid for with tax money. It’s a mafia,” she explains, pointing out how these groups control whole economies in the state of Rio de Janeiro. And because of their chokehold over their particular territories, they also gain political power over large sections of the electorate in these communities.
With all the violence surrounding these paramilitary groups, one might wonder how they relate to the local population. “If a militia has a clear set of rules and the people feel well treated, they will support it,” says sociologist Ignácio Cano, from Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). He co-authored a study on the evolution of militias in Brazil between 2008 and 2011. “However, many people actually prefer the narcotraffickers, because they are more predictable,” he says.
The First Family and organised crime
The first militias came from the favela of Rio das Pedras, located to the east of Rio de Janeiro, when local businesses started paying off-duty cops extra for protection against robbers and other petty criminals as early as 1979. Rio das Pedras is also the chosen hiding place of a man named Fabrício Queiroz (no relation to Élcio Vieira de Queiroz), an ex-military policeman turned driver, private security guard and adviser to Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s son (then a Rio de Janeiro state congressman).
Until a recent decision by the Supreme Court, Queiroz was being indicted for laundering money as a public agent on charges that heavily implicated the president’s son. However, the federal Council for Financial Activities Control (COAF) recently closed the investigation and dropped all charges against Queiroz. Investigations into acts of financial impropriety committed by Flávio Bolsonaro have also been suspended.
Another potential beneficiary of the decision is Franco’s alleged killer Ronnie Lessa: according to his lawyer, prosecutors had used information from COAF about a R$100,000 (approximately US$25,500) deposit to his account, which investigators believe to be payment for the assassination.
This is closely linked to another aspect of Bolsonaro’s agenda that empowers the militias and their supporters – the loosening of gun laws. Taurus is a Brazilian weapons manufacturer that holds a near monopoly in the country and, even though the president has promoted their new assault rifles on YouTube, his new policies seek to expand the market both ways, by increasing the number of consumers and producers of guns and ammunition.
The measure is promoted as a matter of personal liberty and the right to defend oneself against crime, but the data is clear in showing that gun ownership increases violence. In 2016, one-fourth of all global gun-related homicides took place in Brazil, while firearms remain the leading cause of death by homicides in the country, especially against women, where the feminicide rate is the highest it has been in a decade.
By allowing citizens to own guns, President Bolsonaro is actively helping militias, narcotraffickers, land grabbers collaborating with agrobusinesses and other criminals gain access to even more firepower. And by helping them, he helps himself.
A retired military officer turned career politician, Bolsonaro has historically supported paramilitary groups. As congressmen, he and his sons – three of them are currently elected officials – have praised and offered tribute to members of militias and death squads, including one of the men from the Crime Bureau who was initially arrested in relation to Marielle Franco and Anderson Gomes’s death, the ex-military policeman Ronald Paulo Alves Pereira.
In 2004, he was honoured by Flávio Bolsonaro when then army major Pereira was being investigated for killing three people in the Maré complex during a police raid. The following year, Flávio Bolsonaro nominated Pereira for a congressional commendation (the highest possible honour) for his ‘heroic’ deeds.
Another man twice honoured by Flávio Bolsonaro is former police captain Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, now a fugitive accused of being the main leader of the Crime Bureau. Flávio has employed Adriano’s mother and wife in his cabinet and, according to information from COAF – which is now inadmissible – both of them had allegedly transferred parts of their salaries to Fabrício Queiroz’s account. Both Queiroz and Nóbrega were part of the same military police battalion in the 1990s.
The fact is that Brazil’s high crime and murder rate is being used by pro-militia politicians and pundits to promote even more violence. And with the Bolsonaro family in power, it is not only harder to change that reality – they are engaged in a deliberate effort to make it worse.