Militias in Rio de Janeiro

Friday, November 5, 2010

carro_batmanLast month the film Tropa de Elite 2 (Elite Squad 2) was released in Brazil. It is a sequel to the very successful 2007 film Elite Squad, a semi-fictional account of the BOPE – special heavily armed police units that invade the slums in Rio de Janeiro going after the drug trafficking gangs. In the new sequel the BOPE have a new enemy: paramilitary groups known as 'milícias' in stead of the usual suspects, the drug gangs of Rio.

The militias are well-organised private vigilante groups made up of rogue, dismissed or retired police officers, firemen and prison guards. They rationalise their violence by pretending to provide security to neighbourhoods and remove the drug gangs and the violence caused by the competition between the gangs over drug trafficking free zones. Their “legitimation” comes from the absence of regular law enforcement that is supposed to restore public order. Many of Rio's favelas are now controlled by militias, primarily in the West Zone of the city, yet it is an issue that seems to be surprisingly under-the-radar of the general public.

Elite Squad 2 broke a national record, with more than 1.25 million spectators during its first weekend. It received mostly positive reviews, contrary to its predecessor that caused a major controversy for its portrayal of unpunished police brutality in the favelas. Some saw Elite Squad 1 as glamorising police violence and called the film ‘fascist’. One review said that the new Elite Squad 2 went "even deeper in the realism and toughness of the social scenario in Rio de Janeiro, stained by violence and corruption in all its forms."

crime4In March this year TNI published a briefing on the phenomenon: The Impact of Militia Actions on Public Security Policies in Rio de Janeiro. In the briefing Paulo Jorge Ribeiro and Rosane Oliveira look at the rise of the militias and the recurrent episodes of extreme urban violence in Rio de Janeiro. The briefing shows that the private militias are part of a problem of urban insecurity that has much deeper and historical roots. The study describes a worrying scenario in the informal urban settlements that may be particular to Rio, but also represent developments in urban security that spread far beyond Brazil.

In many unruly megacities around the world, the state often cannot provide law and order and satisfy basic security needs and is superseded by a wide range of alternative illegitimate security arrangements, creating a power and governance vacuum. With the absence of rule of law and governance, security ceases to be a public good and transforms into a private commodity. The social contract between state and citizen, expressed by the payment of taxes and the protection implied in an effective monopoly of the legitimate use of force, is seriously weakened. The state monopoly on the legitimate use of force is eroded and "markets of violence" or a "markets of force" emerge as a mode of security regulation.

Ribeiro and Oliveira show that the militias have another rationale as well. The ultimate goal of militias is profit, levying security taxes on inhabitants, business and services. This economic rationale has caused violent disputes between different militias. The perverse reality Rio de Janeiro is witnessing today is that – on top of the violence between drug gangs and between drugs gangs and police – the militias have added yet another wave of violence; of militias against drug gangs, militias against militias and militias against police.

The film is a direct attack on the corruption in the government that runs all the way to the top – particularly the election of the city governor and the dirty politics involved in getting there. One can only hope that Elite Squad 2 will take its spectators beyond the fascination with the violence and raise the awareness on the fundamental issues at stake. The briefing helps to understand what those issues are.