In the following interview, a sociologist who has studied Rio de Janeiro’s [vigilante off-duty police] militias for 26 years explains the relationship between lawmakers and militia members and says that the Bolsonaro family is the political heir of representatives linked to extermination groups that were active in the 1990s.
In January, during a police raid dubbed Operation Untouchables, members of the militia that operates in Rio das Pedras, in Rio’s West Zone, were arrested. One of the targets of the operation was former Military Police captain Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, accused of heading the Rio das Pedras militia and taking part in the Crime Bureau death squad—currently under investigation for the murder of Rio city councilor Marielle Franco. His mother and wife took part in the cabinet of Flávio Bolsonaro (son of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro) in the Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly (ALERJ). Flávio Bolsonaro also awarded Nóbrega with the Tiradentes Medal, the greatest honor granted by ALERJ.
The news didn’t come as a surprise to José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book From the Barons to Extermination: A History of Violence in the Baixada Fluminense. A sociologist and former associate dean of academic extension programs at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), Alves has studied the militias for the last 26 years. In an interview with Agência Pública, he vehemently summarizes: “The militia is the government.”
‘They are formed by government agents themselves—assassins and militia members who are also representatives and city council members. A militia member is the Environment Secretary. Without this direct connection to the political system, there wouldn’t be militia activity to the extent that there is today,” he adds.
According to Alves, it is common for militia members to have their family serve in the offices of representatives and city councilors. ‘This is very common. This connection gives them power in their communities. Now they will be called upon in the community: “He’s the guy who has power up there with the representative. If we need anything sorted out, just talk to him. He will talk to his mother or wife and they’ll speak directly to Flávio [Bolsonaro]. Problem solved.”
In this interview, Alves explains the origin of these groups and their ties to politics: “Five decades of death squads resulted in 70% of voters supporting Bolsonaro in the Baixada Fluminense.”
Check out the main excerpts from the interview.
Agência Pública: How did the militias emerge in Rio de Janeiro?
José Cláudio Souza Alves: They exploded during the military dictatorship. In 1967, the Military Police emerged in its current form as a heavily present force to provide support to the military at the time. From there, the death squads were born. At the end of the 1960s, militias emerged as extermination groups composed of Military Police officers and other agents from security forces that acted as for-hire assassins.
These death squads arrived in full force in the 1970s. After awhile, civilians began to emerge as the leaders of death squads—but they were always tied to government agents. This was in the 1980s. With democratization, these same assassins from the 1980s started getting elected in the 1990s. They become mayors, city councilors, and state representatives.
Between 1995 and 2000, we saw the emergence of the prototype of what would later become the militias in the Baixada, in the West Zone, and across Rio de Janeiro. They are associated with urban land occupations. They are leaders who emerge from these occupations and who are directly connected to land issues in the Baixada Fluminense. From 2000 onward, these militia members became organized as they are today. They are Military and Civil Police officers, firefighters, and security agents. They are active in areas that previously had a drug trafficking presence and engage in a conflictual relationship with traffickers. At the same time, they establish a power structure built on collecting fees [extortion] and selling basic services and urban commodities such as water, landfill sites, and land.
Is there public support for the militias?
The militia emerged with the discourse of countering drug trafficking. This rhetoric still works. However, as time passes, people begin to realize that they kill anyone who opposes them. And they start to control many businesses [including drug trafficking]. So the population gets scared and doesn’t support them as much. That’s always the story with militias.
What’s the story of Rio das Pedras?
Rio das Pedras is a growing community home to many poor people [originally] from Brazil’s Northeast. There are plots of land there where you can’t build anything because the conditions are inadequate—too unstable—so there is only one specific stretch of land where you can build. These are informal plots of land, unoccupied public land, or land owned by people who couldn’t stay. So the militia starts controlling, seizing, and legalizing land ownership—sometimes even through the City by paying property taxes. The land system is not regulated, giving these militia members easy access to information in order to go ahead and take over these areas and then start to sell them.
Was Rio’s first militia in Rio das Pedras?
It’s not exactly like that. The way I see it, the militia began in different places at the same time. So there is one in Rio das Pedras, but there is also a militia presence across Rio’s West Zone and in Duque de Caxias, in the Baixada Fluminense, for example.
In my view, 1995 to 2000 was roughly the period in which these urban land occupations emerged—not yet a militia prototype but rather a form of local leadership that resembled control by violence, a more authoritarian style of political control.
But in Rio das Pedras this emerged much more quickly. That is where the tendency to collect fees [extort] began, which wasn’t happening yet in other places. Local business owners are the ones who pay them.
It is a deprived and impoverished community that continues to grow with the influx of migrants from Brazil’s Northeast. And the community faces a group of militia members who are being called to provide protection and prevent drug trafficking from entering. But the truth is that their intention is to protect the commercial interests of these shopkeepers and businessmen who have established themselves in Rio das Pedras and who are financing these guys.
How many militias are there in Rio de Janeiro?
I have the sense that they are many. For example, there are many that are active in São Bento and in Pilar—the second largest neighborhood in Duque de Caxias. They are in Nova Iguaçu and in Queimada. Practically every municipality in the Baixada Fluminense has the presence of militias. Seropédica, for example, is a city controlled by militia members these days. They control security fees levied from businesses [extortion]. There are many sand quarries, where lots of sand is extracted—much of it illegally. So they also charge fees [extort] there. Motorcycle taxi drivers have to pay R$80 (US$20) a week so they can work. Popcorn vendors have to pay R$50 (US$12.50) a week. It’s crazy.
They say that it’s for safety and protection—that they are supposedly protecting these businesses. But then they control the distribution of water, cooking gas, cigarettes, and liquor. There are stories of people who didn’t accept the way things were and ended up getting killed, for example.
In addition, they are paid to conduct summary executions. So there is a market that has been moving millions for a while now.
They also deal with drug traffickers—with specific factions. The Third Pure Command (TCP) operates here in some of the cities in the Baixada by dealing with the militias. They make agreements with the traffickers and also make money from them. They charge rent for some areas. It’s the same relationship that the police has with the traffickers: you can only operate there if you pay a bribe.
Press coverage of Operation Untouchables cited the Death Bureau, a for-hire extermination group. Is this common?
Yes. I’ve never heard of a militia that doesn’t practice summary executions. Normally, the militia has a team or group responsible for these executions. When there’s a business owner who doesn’t want to pay or a resident who doesn’t want to pay for the real estate they acquired—any problem or disagreement with the militia’s interests—this armed division is put into action to kill.
The new thing about the militia is the array of services that they manage beyond summary executions and security. It’s everything: cooking gas, cable TV, informal transportation, land, real estate. Now the militia isn’t just tied to shopkeepers and businessmen. They have become more sophisticated in their management.
What other illegal businesses are militia members involved in?
In Duque de Caxias, they steal oil from the pipelines of Petrobras [Brazil’s state-run oil company] and build miniature distilleries at people’s houses. It’s all illegal and highly risky. Then they sell adulterated fuel. They build clandestine landfills in the middle of the region with dredgers and tractors and charge people to bury their waste. It’s R$1,000 (US$250) per truck, no matter where the waste comes from. It can be contaminated, industrial, or hospital waste. They build clandestine landfills throughout the region.
The militia also has control over public goods like landfills and they appropriate theses spaces in order to carry out illegal activities…
The foundation of the militia is the militarized control of geographic areas, so urban space is in itself a source of profit. If you control this urban space militarily—with the use of arms and by means of violence—you are going to make a profit on it. How? You sell real estate. For example, you have the Minha Casa Minha Vida public housing program. You build housing complexes. Then the militia comes and militarily assumes control of the area and determines who is going to occupy the houses, even charging fees [extortion] from residents.
In another area, they sell real estate and make money off the land, which is either public or belongs to other people. So the militarized control of these spaces is the foundation of the militia. How do they get ahold of this information? They have information from inside the political system.
You need political support to do this. I’ll give you an example. In Duque de Caxias, a fair number of public schools aren’t supplied by the State Water and Sewerage Utility (CEDAE). Water doesn’t get there. How do those schools function? They are supplied by water trucks. Who sells them that water? Who won the public tender to distribute water at absurd prices with these water trucks? People connected to militias. So there you have a connection to public services—we’re talking about a lot of money—and it comes down to the political interests of a certain group within the city government who stands to benefit from this information and make money from it.
The Baixada and Rio de Janeiro are huge labs for illicit and illegal activities that collude to strengthen a political, economic, cultural, and geographically established power structure predicated on violence and armed control.
Did the militias emerge in Rio de Janeiro due to the government’s absence?
The government is consistent. Assassins get elected. Militia members get elected. They have direct relationships with the government. They are government agents. They are the government. So don’t tell me that the government is absent. It is the government that determines who is going to operate the militarized control and security in the area. Because they, themselves, are government agents. Assassins and militia members are also representatives and city council members. A militia member is the Environment Secretary.
As I always say: it’s not a parallel power, so don’t use this term. It’s the power of the government itself.
I’m talking about a government that is becoming involved in illegal operations—becoming more powerful in illicit activities than it is in the legal sphere. This way, it can rule over your life in a totalitarian way. And you can’t oppose that.
But on the other hand, it’s the people who elect members of the militia…
Don’t come telling me that residents are conniving criminal accomplices. Did these people elect Flávio Bolsonaro, who is known to possibly have connections to these groups? They did. But in what conditions are these people living to reach this point? This population is subject to misery, violence, and poverty imposed on them.
Five decades of death squads resulted in 70% of voters supporting Bolsonaro in the Baixada Fluminense.
In its three terms heading the federal government—fourteen years in power—the Workers’ Party (PT) didn’t scratch the surface of this structure. They provided [public assistance through] Bolsa Família and many political groups became linked to the PT, but the party did not change anything about this structure. The PT built political alliances and sought out support among these groups.
Since you mentioned the Flávio Bolsonaro story: what connects a politician’s office to a militia member, as was his case with the mother and wife of Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega?
It’s the Bolsonaro family’s discourse, which started some time ago with the father [Jair Bolsonaro] and later was politically projected onto his sons. They are the heirs of police commissioner Sivuca [José Guilherme Godinho Sivuca Ferreira, who was elected as a federal representative for the Liberal Front Party (PFL) in 1990], the guy who coined the expression “a good thug is a dead thug;” of Emir Larangeira, who was also elected a federal representative in 1990; and of members of the old guard—the political division of the death squads.
This rhetoric has been perpetuated and consolidated. Of course, militia members will back up this discourse and strengthen themselves with it. In the public security plan proposed by Bolsonaro during his presidential campaign, he said that Military Police officers are national heroes, that the officers need to be supported and backed up and should receive awards.
And they will be supported by the law by being granted impunity for killing in the name of self-defense. It’s in Bolsonaro’s governance plan. So you have sectors that have operated illegally since the military dictatorship conducting summary executions who are hearing this kind of rhetoric. It’s music to their ears.
It’s no coincidence that Flávio Bolsonaro mentioned and awarded these militia members, who were later arrested, in the state legislature.
Beyond this symbolic discourse, do you also see financial ties between the militias and politicians?
There’s an operation inside the official political system. For example, in Duque de Caxias, there’s a general registry of publicly owned land. There are militia members who look in the City’s files for plots of land or buildings with an accumulation of unpaid taxes. This militia member starts paying off the debt and then requests for the property to be transferred to his name. The City agrees. It’s a simple procedure. Then, the old owner will never have the nerve to demand the property back because it becomes militarily controlled.
Without these elements, these individuals, and this direct connection to the political system, there wouldn’t be militia activity to the extent that there is today. It is critical for the structure to be this way. It’s essential. That’s why I say that it’s not a parallel power—it is the government.
And there are politicians who are elected to office with that money. The militia’s money finances the power of politicians like Flávio Bolsonaro, whose political power, in turn, helps the militia make more money. It’s a two-way street. It’s essential for the system to be this way. This is how it is perpetuated.
Is it common to see cases like that of Adriano Magalhães de Nóbrega, whose mother and wife were hired as staffers in Flávio Bolsonaro’s office?
Yes, it’s very common. You create a connection based on power and money with these people. Through his wife and mother, this guy creates an immediate tie to Flávio Bolsonaro, which gives him strength. These two people are creating an immediate, personal family connection between Nóbrega and Bolsonaro. This connection gives him power in his community. Now he will be called upon in the community: ‘He’s the guy who has power up there with the representative. If we need anything sorted out, just talk to him. He will talk to his mother or wife and they’ll speak directly to Flávio [Bolsonaro]. Problem solved.’”
They’re creating a power structure built around family ties. You see: it is what they support. They [the Bolsonaros] support the family structure. If you investigate further, you’ll see that it’s religion-based too. Evangelical churches are connected to this structure. So it’s a perfect structure—it’s traditional and conservative and it utilizes religious language, which is a highly credible language.
It also shows how these people operate. They’re not operating in hiding. Nóbrega, Flávio Bolsonaro, Bolsonaro himself, the assassins in the Baixada. These groups that deal with violence, summary executions, and organized crime aren’t keeping a low profile.
In Brazil, what you have is overexposure. I could come up and say up front: “I’m the man, I’m the killer, I have connections with so-and-so. I work in this or that office.” This is to make it very clear what you’re up against if you try anything.
It’s entirely based on fear. And not only fear—it’s real.
On their political capital: do they also have the power to manipulate the public vote during elections? Is there an organized network for this?
Actually, the militias sell the votes of entire communities. Here in the Baixada as a whole and in the West Zone. They sell “packages” of votes. They have control. They have precise control of voter ID, polling stations for each ID, how many votes they will get there. They can identify who didn’t vote for them.
But aren’t steps being taken to dismantle this structure, as seen in Rio das Pedras?
Operation Untouchables might be among the more historic operations. But I have been very critical of this type of operation. The militia is a network—a very big network—so for each person arrested, you have one hundred others to fill their spot. Because if you keep the structure working, it will be perpetuated economically and politically.
Nobody touches these guys. Usually, they only bother the drug traffickers. And traffickers aren’t the most powerful. Militias have more power than traffickers. Militia members get elected, traffickers don’t. The militia’s economic base is expanding—it hasn’t been touched. The surface hasn’t even been scratched. This isn’t the case with drug traffickers—they are always killing and being killed. The militia is the government.
Yet more, you look at the faces of arrested militia members and there is a tendency for all of them to be white. There’s going to be one or another who is brown, but they don’t tend to be black. And they aren’t skinny—they’re well fed. I’m sure that the class to which militia members belong is different from that of the drug trafficking gangs. They aren’t as poor. They aren’t as black. They aren’t as peripheral.
Beyond this political relationship, is there also a financial one? How do militia members move money through these political connections? What was the role of [Fabrício] Queiroz in Flávio Bolsonaro’s cabinet, for example?
Well, there was a large suspicious bank transaction of R$7 million (US$1.75 million). From there, you can deduce. This guy [Queiroz] might just be a middleman. He was a staffer, but at the same time, he had two roles. He gets political support from Flávio Bolsonaro. He is the link between this office and the militia—between the interests of this militia, those who are served by it, and this office. At the same time, he moves up within the militia’s hierarchy.
I don’t know what his story is. But maybe he was already in the militia and moving money. Then, for example, if he is a “front” or an associate—a guy who is part of the organization charging security fees, for example, and moving money. Lots of money. Then suddenly, he transfers part of that money into his personal account. This is an organized crime strategy that he used. So that might explain these R$7 million.
May this be only one transaction among many?
It’s just the tip of the iceberg. What I really want is to see this case be investigated. They would find something much bigger.
Regarding Marielle’s case: the case is back in the spotlight because the militia members arrested [in January] during Operation Untouchables were part of the Crime Bureau, a group suspected to be involved in Marielle’s death. At the end of last year, Rio’s State Secretary of Public Security Richard Nunes stated that the murder is related to illegal land-grabbing. Do you believe that she was killed because she got in the militia’s way?
There are two connections. There is the fact of getting in the way and harming their interests. Marielle Franco had the power to cause them harm by organizing a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) to force the government and the media as a whole to address this issue. If she repeated what Marcelo Freixo did in 2008 in the Rio de Janeiro City Council, she would expose them. She had Freixo’s support, so Marielle had uncompromising political support that would not sell out to special interests. So she was a threatening figure to them.
Another aspect is the fact of her being a woman—a very intense, truthful woman who was not intimidated. She stood up against them, face-to-face. She never subordinated herself. They can’t stand women with these qualities—that’s the truth.
Marielle Franco, Patrícia Acioli (who was also murdered); and Tânia Maria Sales Moreira (a District Attorney here in Duque de Caxias who received many death threats, but died of cancer)—these three women share this profile. They are very brave women with lots of determination and the truth on their side. They don’t accept subordination and don’t give in. These guys can’t stand this kind of woman. They will eliminate them. It’s total misogyny; they don’t accept any woman treating them like this.
Since the start, I called it: the murder was committed by death squads closely connected to militia members. It’s their M.O.