An expanding crack-down by the police and army against Rio de Janeiro’s powerful and violent militias has led to surges in open armed conflict and retaliatory killings. The result is that the city’s major streets and highways have been blocked, and public spaces and residential districts have transformed into war zones.
The militias — largely composed of armed gangs with links to former and serving police officers — have imposed a reign of terror on many poor communities. They are extorting fees from residents’ who are dependent on their control of basic services such as cooking gas, electricity and water, as well as networks of illegal gambling operations. The militia groups have responded to the arrest of some of their key leaders with open attacks on police which has increased this year’s toll of murdered Rio law-enforcement officers to more than 50. In turn the police have responded with furious raids on militia controlled areas which have resulted in the summary execution of suspects and the deaths of unarmed civilians who have been caught in the crossfire.
The 14 March murder of Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman, Marielle Franco, has led to accusations by police informers that her gangland-style execution may have been the result of a hit ordered by politicians and criminals linked to militia groups concerned that her support of shantytown community groups would threaten their control.
Meanwhile, the city’s crime wave has seen the impact of urban crime and violence expand beyond the more remote and poorer districts into elite neighbourhoods inhabited by expatriates working in the city’s oil, finance and mining industries. There has been an increase in street crime in areas such as Urca, which has long been associated with relative immunity from violence, and Barra de Tijuca which is known for the tight security of its gated communities.
According to a phone app created to track Rio de Janeiro’s violence, 87% of its 162 neighbourhoods have reported gunfights and they have left at least 222 dead and 282 injured since the beginning of 2018.
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