The Militias of Rio De Janeiro

Brazilian militias, made up largely of ex and current police officers and soldiers, are groups that were originally created in the 1990s to address gang presence in Rio de Janeiro. Since the first militia was founded in Rio das Pedras, far western Rio, by migrant workers, the presence and membership of Brazil’s militias exploded. Before the late 1990s, militia groups charged local businesses and residents moderate fees for protection from gangs; originally a response to unchecked organised crime, the militias have become what they swore to destroy. Militias also enjoy the overt support of a number of politicians, including ex-president Jair Bolsonaro. (source)

Brazilian Militias are largely active int he Favela's of Rio
Rio das Pedras, the favela where milicías originated

1. Introduction to the Present

Fast forward to the 21st century – These groups now:

  • Extort
  • Murder
  • Assault civilians
  • Traffic drugs
  • Traffic arms
  • Launder money

Much like their gang counterparts; however, with even more impunity (source)(source). The impunity afforded to Brazil’s militias results from corruption and the support they receive from state institutions. Pro-militia parties tend to win elections in regions under militia control, owed mostly to the fact that opposing candidates are often threatened or killed (source)(source). Jair Bolsonaro believes that “in places where the militias are paid, there is no violence” and his son Flávio, who is a senator, openly welcomed them to Rio de Janeiro (source)(source). Jair and Flávio believe Rio is safer because of the militias. It is likely that this ‘belief’ is more connected to the personal relationships the Bolsonaro family has with militia leaders and complicit businessmen than to actual results. (source)

1.1 Politicians with Alleged Ties to Brazil’s Militias

Jair Bolsonaro – Ex-President, Liberal Party (source)

Flávio Bolsonaro – Federal Senator for Rio de Janeiro, Liberal Party (source)

Junior da Lucinha – Rio de Janeiro City Councillor, Secretary of Healthy Aging and Quality of Life, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) (source)

William Coelho – Rio de Janeiro City Councillor Secretary of Science and Technology, PMDB (source)

Marcello Siciliano – Rio de Janeiro City Councillor, Humanist Party of Solidarity (PHS) (source)

Zico Bacana – Rio de Janeiro City Councillor, PHS (source)

1.2 Militia Ties to the Bolsonaro Family

In 2018, a gunman assassinated Marielle Franco, a leftist Rio councilwoman. Marielle spoke out consistently about the militias’ connections to Rio’s business and political elite (source). The Rio Police arrested two police officers for her murder. These two officers were a part of the ‘Escritorio do Crime’ (Crime Office), one of the most ruthless militias in Brazil. Their arrest led to a January 2019 raid that saw five militiamen arrested. The only one who escaped the raid, Adriano Nóbrega, had direct ties to Bolsonaro’s son, Flávio. Nóbrega’s mother and wife had been receiving payments from Flavio, who was then a member of Rio’s state assembly (source). Further, A witness to the case suggested that councilman Siciliano had an interest in her death. He vehemently denied being involved. (source)

A month after these revelations, it was revealed that two militiamen arrested in an August 2018 raid had been sending signed checks to Flavio. In 2011, Flavio blamed a judge for her own murder at the hands of Brazil’s militias, claiming she was humiliating the police. To make matters worse, Jair lives in the same upscale neighbourhood as one of the ex-police officers arrested for Ms. Franco’s murder, and Jair’s daughter was dating the ex-officer’s son (source). This information does not directly evidence the involvement of Jair nor Flavio in any homicides, however it illustrates the inextricable link the Bolsonaro family has to militia members.

2. Militia Operations

2.1 Territorial Expansion

Despite militias growing at such expeditious speeds, gangs in Rio hold more territory than ever before. Further, 90 percent of territory newly claimed by militias was previously gang free. Militias have quadrupled their territory since 2006 (source). They are now present in at least 165 favelas and control territory with a population of over two million Brazilians (source). Out of all territory controlled by gangs or militias, militias control 48 percent of Baixada Fluminense, 49 percent of Regiao Metropolitana, and 84 percent of Leste Metropolitano. (source)

Expansion of Militias (Blue) and Gangs (Red, Green, and Purple) in Rio de Janeiro:

Source: Geni/UFF e Instituto Fogo Cruzado.

2.2 Illicit Economies

Militias have diversified their profit activities. According to Rodrigo Teixeira de Oliveira of Rio’s Civil Police, the militias’ intention is to establish a monopoly over all illicit sectors of the economy. Once monopolies on illicit – and often legal – goods are established, militias charge Brazilians extortionate rates to purchase them. If one attempts to acquire any of these illicit services from a different party or skirt their ‘protection’ payments, they often end up dead. A favela resident interviewed by InsightCrime said that if he bought gas cylinders from someone besides the militia, the group would confiscate them and possibly attack him. Militias essentially run the economies of the regions they control and have deep ties with corporations and large business. (source)(source)

2.3 Illicit Goods and Services Provided by Militias (source)

  1. Alternative Transport
  2. Gatonet (TV & Internet Services)
  3. Gas, Including Gas Cylinders
  4. Construction
  5. ‘Security’ and ‘Protection’ Rackets – Militias extort money from local businesses
  6. Electricity
  7. Water

2.4 Drug & Weapons Trafficking

Veja, a Brazilian news outlet, claims that militias in Western Rio are involved in both drug and weapons trafficking. They claim the Western Rio Port of Itaguaí to be key to these operations. Albeit outside of the group’s Campo Grande hub, Itaguaí is an area where Bonde do Zinho, as well as other militia groups, retain a significant level of influence. Ecko, Bonde do Zinho’s leader from 2018 until Zinho took over, was extensively effective at deepening the group’s ties to local police, politicians, and drug traffickers. (source)

3. Bonde do Zinho

3.1 Past

The Bonde do Zinho, which basically translates to Zinho’s group, is one of the largest Brazilian militias in Rio. Jeronimo and Natalino Filho founded the group, originally called the Liga da Justiça – in reference to superhero comics – in the 1990s in Campo Grande, Western Rio. The Liga charged residents of western Rio protection fees to keep the gangs at bay. The brothers were ex-police officers who grew tired of the gangs. Police arrested Jeronimo, who was once a city councilor, and Natalino, who was once a state deputy, and sent them both to prison for their involvement with the militia in the late 2000s. The brothers claim they never led the Liga nor committed any crimes in connection to it. Jeronimo also claims political rivals from the same party set him up and put him in prison. The Filho brothers represent the old guard of militiamen in Rio. (source)(source)

3.2 Present

By the time the brothers were released from prison in 2018, the militia had grown exponentially in size and was run by the Braga brothers. After the police killed two of his brothers in raids, Zinho Braga took over the group, hence the name Bonde do Zinho. Police, after acquiring intel that the Filho’s faction planned to kidnap Zinho’s daughter, suspected that upon their release from prison, the Filhos attempted to take back control of the militia from Zinho. This year Jeronimo Filho was found dead. At his funeral, hundreds of people showed up in shirts and hats branded with his nickname. (source)(source)

“if the governor created a group to finish that fucking militia, I would like to command it.”

Jeronimo Filho, in reference to Bonde do Zinho

The evolutionary process that Bonde do Zinho has undergone is exemplary of the changes in militia behaviour in Rio since the 1990s. As opposed to the stark opposition the Liga found itself in with gangs in the 1990s, the Bonde de Zinho actively collaborates with them. Bonde do Zinho allows Third Command Puro, a gang, to sell drugs on its turf in exchange for it allowing the Bonde to provide services on theirs (source). Brazil’s militias have become money-making machines, demonstrated by the fact that one of the ex-police officers implicated in Ms Franco’s murder could afford swanky housing in the same neighbourhood as Jair Bolsonaro. (source)

Bonde do Zinho members

3.3 Bonde do Zinho Connections to Police and Business

Evidence suggests that Brazilian militias, and specifically Bonde do Zinho, work hand in hand with the police and local businesses. Last month Rio’s Public Ministry acquired WhatsApp messages that suggested Bonde do Zinho had access to internal police rosters and was paying police officers in Santa Cruz 1,900 reais (roughly $359 USD) a week (source). Bonde do Zinho also had access to internal police data systems and was using them to find information on future assassination targets. (source

This year Rio de Janeiro police revealed that some of the nation’s largest contractors were making payments to Bonde do Zinho. The CEOs of these contracting companies have close ties to Jair Bolsonaro. Rubin Menin, a businessman who had last met with Jair on 20 May 2022, runs MRV, the company paying the largest monthly sum of 74,000 Reais (almost $14,000 USD). The owner of one of the other companies, Directional, had met with Jair in 2019. The companies claim to be victims of Bonde do Zinho’s extortionary practices. (source)

4. Violence in Rio de Janeiro

Because the Rio state government does not comprehensively track homicides and crime, official numbers on crime and homicide are scarce and contrasting. The numbers we do have suggest – apart from significant upticks in 2017 to 2018, as well as during the pandemic – that homicides in Rio have been gradually declining over the last 15 years. This figure, however, does not capture the whole pie, nor does it include killings by police, which have drastically increased (source)(source)(source).

To keep things in perspective, Rio is not, comparatively speaking, an extremely dangerous city. As of 2020, Rio had a homicide rate comparable to Chicago, and much like its American counterpart, extreme violence most frequently occurs in poorer areas further from the city centre. Nevertheless, militias present business people and tourists with challenges they do not face in many parts of the world especially in Western Rio Janeiro (source).

Brazilian police make up a large chunk of the Militias in Brazil
Brazilian police carrying out an operation at Christ the Redeemer, a site frequented by tourists.
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