Off-duty and rogue police officers are contributing to $39 billion in graft.
A new cigarette, Gift, went on sale early last year in the bars and newspaper kiosks of Itaboraí, a crumbling former oil town on Rio de Janeiro’s outskirts. At just under a dollar a pack, Gift quickly cornered the market in contraband tobacco in the sweltering city that, despite a population of almost 240,000, looks and feels abandoned. Its dominance wasn’t because of the Paraguayan product’s quality. Rather, police say, it marked the arrival of a murderous militia that forced vendors to sell it.
Itaboraí, about 30 miles east of Rio, has been ravaged by recession, crime, and corruption—the same forces that have ground down Brazil and drove voters to elect hard-liner Jair Bolsonaro as president last year. Ten years ago the city looked set to ride the commodities boom. Now the gargantuan cluster of gleaming metal chimneys and gas flares of the petrochemical plant Comperj, built by oil giant Petrobras, stands virtually idle, and a violent paramilitary group is picking over the economy’s bones.
Militias—bands of rogue and off-duty police and other security officers—started operating in Rio’s impoverished western neighborhoods a few decades ago. Politicians either turned a blind eye or collaborated with the groups, which were ostensibly formed to drive out drug traffickers but mutated into mafia that charge for such services as security, cooking gas, internet access, and cable TV. These gangs are now active across Rio and 14 other cities in the state, affecting the lives of 2 million people, police say.
Bolsonaro, who campaigned on a law-and- order platform, didn’t respond to requests for comment, but he publicly defended militias during his lengthy career as a congressman representing Rio de Janeiro. “Some people support militias, as they see them as a way of freeing themselves from violence,” he told Radio Jovem Pan in February last year. “Where the militia is paid, there’s no violence.”
Itaboraí’s terrorized residents tell a different story. In January state agents arrested nine suspected militia members there, accusing them of extortion. Residents and merchants who resisted faced “kidnapping, torture, and finally death and the disappearance of their corpses,” according to a press release from prosecutors. The local police force didn’t return messages seeking to discuss the militia. Locals say they have nowhere to turn.
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