In Rio's Slums, Militias Fuel Violence They Seek to Quell

A hearse leaves a Rio shantytown with the coffin of Felix dos Santos Tostes, a police officer suspected of also being a militia leader who was slain Feb. 22. Rio's governor rejects the view of anti-gang militias as the lesser of two evils.
A hearse leaves a Rio shantytown with the coffin of Felix dos Santos Tostes, a police officer suspected of also being a militia leader who was slain Feb. 22. Rio's governor rejects the view of anti-gang militias as the lesser of two evils. (By Ricardo Moraes -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A decorated police officer was sitting behind the wheel of his Toyota pickup truck here last month when a group of men surrounded the vehicle and pumped more than 40 bullets into him.

Such execution-style killings are not unusual in a city where police and gang members routinely battle for turf in the shantytowns, but this one sent ripples through Rio. The slain officer, Felix dos Santos Tostes, had been moonlighting as the leader of a militia unit -- one of the well-armed groups that have multiplied throughout the city's slums in recent months, complicating an urban conflict that has defied solution for decades.

The militias have wrested control of nearly 100 of this city's 600 slums, or favelas, from the drug gangs that have long held sway, according to police and nongovernmental organizations. Tostes's murder showed why the shift worries so many people here: Although the militias profess to make the neighborhoods safe, violence is following them. And the deep connections some of the groups maintain to police and political circles make monitoring and controlling them extraordinarily difficult.

Law enforcement and government officials have traditionally advocated a hard-line stance against the easily vilified drug gangs, but Rio's new governor, Sergio Cabral, is urging his colleagues to reject the notion that the militias are the lesser of two evils. He has compared the recent rise of the militias to the situation in Colombia, where the involvement of paramilitary fighters has further muddied that country's long-running battle against Marxist guerrillas. Cabral visited Bogota this week to discuss methods of controlling violence with his Colombian counterparts.

"The government says the militias should be investigated, but the situation is almost comical," said Rodrigo Pimentel, a former military police officer who is now a security consultant. "A lot of people inside the police intelligence units in charge of investigating them are involved with the militias themselves. That's why when the police give the government a list of suspected militia members that should have 700 names on it, there are only 40 or 50."

The militia groups controlling the various neighborhoods are not affiliated with one another. Some were started by residents of the favelas themselves, but many are led by off-duty or retired police officers, firemen and private security workers.

Tostes's name showed up on a list of suspected militia members earlier this year, not long after he had been showered with honors for his work as an aide to Rio's civil police chief, who was replaced when Cabral took office in January. Tostes's murder was an inside job, according to residents of the favela, the result of a power struggle within a militia. Police are investigating the possibility that one of the rival militia leaders who ordered the killing was a regional legislator.

"The political influence that the militias have been building as they have expanded is one of the things that worries us a lot," said Raquel Willadino, director of violence-related issues and human rights for the Favela Observatory, a Rio-based nongovernmental organization.

In Rio das Pedras, residents remember Tostes as something of a folk hero who made their neighborhood safe. The residents were in the habit of throwing a samba party in the main square on Sundays, and a prominent seat was always saved for Tostes. Since his death, no new militia leader has emerged there, but the group continues to enforce a strict brand of public discipline designed to scare off any hint of drug gangs.

The militia's presence is sometimes subtle, sometimes not. On a recent Saturday night, a fight broke out in a restaurant on the main street leading into the favela, said waitress Khedhulya Daiane. Before she knew it, Daiane said, militia members had materialized, seemingly from nowhere, to break it up and punish the instigators. She described the militia members as the shadowy but ever-present eyes and ears of the favela.

"They're tough," she said. "If they know someone is using drugs, they'll beat you, if they don't kill you." She raised her eyebrows and nodded slowly. "It's true."

The Rio das Pedras militia, one of the oldest in the city, was formed in the late 1980s when neighbors banded together to kick out a group of local drug dealers. As the militia evolved, off-duty and retired police officers began taking over its leadership positions. Some residents say that today the militia helps to fill the gap left by the government's inattention to the neighborhood's social needs. For example, its leaders appoint independent mediators to sort out legal disputes among residents who lack ready access to the country's legal system, they said.

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