We Need to Talk about the Militias

State collusion and inattention by the media feed the domination of these groups

On September 19, Folha reported on the activities of militias in Rio de Janeiro. The article said that these groups have been adapting their behaviors to Rio's affluent areas and offer what they already do in peripheral neighborhoods: "protection."

To comment on the report in internal criticism, I did a quick search on the internet. Interestingly, what appeared first was another story from Folha with a very similar title ("Police militia harass rich area of Rio"), that was published in December 2006.

I then realized that the newspaper punctually covered the issue, often treating the old phenomenon as new, which contributed to the invisibility of the issue, its strengthening, and incomprehension.

A month after that story, the topic re-emerged in the headlines of all newspapers regarding an operation carried out by the Rio de Janeiro police that resulted in the death of 17 alleged militiamen.

Days later, on October 19, an unprecedented study by a network of researchers gave new impetus to the recent articles, showing that the militias control 41 of the 161 neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, which corresponds to 57.5% of the city's territorial surface and comprises more than 2 million residents.

Formed in the early 2000s, militias are groups made up of state agents (police and firefighters), former state agents, and civilians who control territories through extortion of all kinds from residents and traders. In addition to doing business in irregular construction areas, they may also deal with waste management, smuggling, arms, and drug trafficking.

The domination of the militias, especially in the most impoverished communities in Rio, is as important an issue as police violence or drug trafficking. Therefore, the public interest in understanding how they operate and how constituted authorities deal with the issue is evident.

It is not just today that the press tries to address the phenomenon, with experienced journalists dedicated to the topic, especially in Rio de Janeiro.

Municipal elections also usually bring the issue back to the debate, given that the influence of paramilitary groups on councilors and mayors in the regions they control is increasingly evident.

Often, however, this coverage is done intermittently and, worse, at risk.

In May 2008, reporters from the newspaper O Dia were kept in a private prison and tortured for more than seven hours while rep\orting on the militiamen in the Batan slum, on the west side of Rio.

Ten years later, militiamen were identified as responsible for killing councilwoman Marielle Franco, proving that neither the press, governments, police and the armed forces are obstacles for a group that has only expanded and strengthened.

There are countless challenges in this type of coverage. One is that, in order to carry it out, journalists depend on police sources, a complicator in cases involving police officers themselves.

It is common for reporters to end up reproducing the punitive look of their sources in the Judiciary, the MP, or the police, without much thought.

Also, newspapers are often guided by eye-catching operations, which certainly bring publicity to police chiefs on occasion, but do not affect the business models of these groups, only causing them to change hands.

Finally, this type of corruption by the State's forces (reinforcing the word corruption here) should not be a concern exclusive to police departments - politicians should also take notice.

In an interview with Globo, journalist and researcher Bruno Paes Manso said that it is impossible to think about the domains exercised by militiamen without the connivance of battalions, police stations, and politicians and, I add, little attention from the media.

Paes Manso also recalled, in an article for Folha, that the current president Jair Bolsonaro and his sons are longtime defenders of the uniformed violence, including the militia. They were always close to figures like the former PM Adriano da Nóbrega, whose mother and ex-wife were employed in the offices of Jair Bolsonaro and his sons.

In the reading of Paes Manso, the election of Jair Bolsonaro marked the end of the New Republic and inaugurated the unpredictable republic of the militias.

If that is true, we cannot go back to the topic in another ten years, at the risk of facing who knows who country.

If the press claims that the country needs to pay more attention to this coverage, then it needs to dedicate more time and investment to the subject and give it more visibility so that a debate can foment.

Flavia Lima

A reporter with a specialization in economics, Flavia Lima graduated in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon