How Street Gangs Have Replaced Cops in Rio

Gardênia Azul, a flatland slum in the scruffy west end of Rio de Janeiro, isn't much to look at. But don't tell that to Juliana. She moved there from Cidade de Deus (City of God), the bullet-riddled shantytown featured in the eponymous drugs-and-thugs film of 2002 that rattled polite Brazilians and earned Latin America's fairest address lasting notoriety. At least in Gardênia there were no teenagers with Kalashnikovs or vendors hawking cocaine in the street. To Juliana, a manicurist with a four-year-old son, those things matter. "We can walk the streets any time of day or night," she says. "I feel safe."

In Gardênia Azul safety is relative, and comes at a price. It's the six percent markup that residents pay on a bottled gas for cooking or the steep rents the slumlords charge. Or the fact that Juliana prefers not to use her real name when talking to a reporter. The reason for her reticence is "the militia", a self-designated neighborhood police force that runs the favela with an iron heel and a hand in everyone's pocket, taking a cut of all local business and services. No one is fond of the militia, which is often the corrupt twin of legitimate law enforcement with rogue cops acting as judge, jury and occasionally executioner. (Juliana won't soon forget her neighbor's 16-year-old, who was shot dead for smoking marijuana, his body dumped in the main square.) But to millions of people trying to get by in some of the meanest streets in the hemisphere, life involves hedging your bets by grabbing at whatever safety net you can. Cariocas, as city natives are called, light one candle to Cristo Redentor, the Art Deco Christ watching over Rio from the mountains, and another to the caveirão, the armored car police use to raid the outlaw favelas. And since neither authority has been up to the task, now the Cariocas are turning to the market.

Lately the market is booming. Blackwater gets all the press for its controversial work providing private security in Iraq, but more and more cities around the world have surrendered crime fighting and prevention into private hands. Analysts estimate that policing is a $100 billion to $200 billion global business and a growth industry in the developing world. In Russia, private cops outnumber regular ones by 10 to 1.  So ubiquitous are they in South Africa, militias are even tasked with guarding regular police stations. Private security generates an estimated million jobs a year in India. Even Uganda has 20,000 private police on the streets, as many as Iraq had in 2006, at the height of the war.

Driving the trend is a complex demographic upheaval of rising prosperity in the emerging nations, a widening gap between rich and poor, burgeoning slums, and the utter incapacity of official enforcers to keep pace with outlaws. In the world's more orderly cities, where there are shopping malls to keep safe, upstanding companies like Pinkerton or the U.K. based G4S deploy trained and uniformed guards and work closely with official law enforcers.  The reality is far different in the poorest countries, where the superrich are tailed by heavies in black suits and earpieces while the poor are left to fend for themselves. The contrast is especially stark in Rio, where some 800 shantytowns crowd the glistening skyline or fester around shuttered factories. For decades, drug traffickers held a monopoly in these asphalt no-man's lands. Now the militias have staked their claim.

Worse, Rio's militias are not just tolerated but exploited by crooked officials, who parlay their official status into a lucrative franchise. Many militias are composed of off duty cops, cashiered prison guards, firefighters, and even condemned criminals who take orders from senior police and elected officials. A recent probe by Rio lawmakers named eight elected officials and 67 police as ringleaders in 171 favelas. Don't bother asking for badge numbers. "You've heard of the gangs of New York. Now we have the gangs of Rio," says Claudio Ferraz, who heads Rio's organized-crime fighting united, DRACO.

These official godfathers are what makes militias far more treacherous than drug traffickers, says José Mariano Beltrame, Rio's secretary of public safety. "We are seeing the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime," he says. And yet Beltrame says before he took office in 2007 no one even bothered to investigate the militias. Why the blind spot? "Interests," he shakes his head, signaling he can say no more. A probe by the Rio daily O Dia found that militia bosses have parlayed their lock on the favelas—where they run public transportation, skim off utility payments, control home sales and rentals, and peddle pirate cable-TV subscriptions—into personal fortunes, including yachts, mansions, and country estates.

The good news is the official indulgence may be ending. A former chief of police is now behind bars, for allegedly commanding militias. And after raiding militia strongholds and arresting more than 60 alleged ringleaders in Campo Grande, a major suburb west of Rio, the murder rate there plunged, a flicker of hope for the rest of the city. Still, busting rogue cops is only the beginning. Last month, a notorious militiaman known to all as Batman and serving time for attempted murder, walked out of a maximum-security prison in broad daylight.  "Criminals move in where the state is weak or absent," says state lawmaker Marcelo Freixo. He should know. The target of anonymous threats ever since he led the legislative probe into Rio's militias, Freixo never goes anywhere without the cloud of body guards he refers to as "my friends." In Rio, everyone hedges their bets.