Militias in Brazil

By Alexandra Smith

A major force contributing to the level of violence in Brazil are paramilitary groups called “militias,” often composed of former and current police officers, prison guards, and firefighters.[1] Ostensibly formed to combat criminal organizations, these violent groups have assassinated politicians and threaten anyone they believe to be connected to criminal organizations.[2] The militias operate in Brazil’s poorest neighborhoods, where they compete with gangs for control. Their connections to state power are hazy, sometimes facing crackdowns from police, though Brazil’s new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is a strong supporter of militias.[3] Since the militias currently control even more favelas, a type of informal settlement or shantytown which emerged in Brazil’s major cities, than Brazil’s powerful gangs,[4] they are a likely source of danger for poor Brazilians fleeing violence.

The militia movement emerged in Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s and early 2000s as a reaction to amateur vigilantism and the growth of gangs in favelas and are seen as a positive force by some Brazilians, especially police officers and the upper-middle class.[5][6] The militias are enabled to fight gangs due to this tacit support from sectors of the Brazilian state, who see the militias as allies in the fight against gangs.[7] From their founding to 2019, the militias spread to a dozen of Brazil’s twenty-six states and in rural Brazil they have gained a new role: pushing locals off land sought after by businessmen.[8] Again, while the militia activities in rural Brazil are official denounced by the federal police, President Bolsonaro has made positive comments, suggesting that militias be legalized.[9]

A 2007 NACLA report ahead of the Olympic games in Rio found that militias routinely used force against alleged criminals and their family members.[10] The militias escalate violence with gangs, leading to shoot-outs in favelas, while “abusing residents with impunity.”[11] The militias also act as a business, extracting protection fees from businesses in the favelas they control, or providing services to residents as higher than market costs.[12] Meanwhile, the militia commitment to fighting drug trafficking is waning, with some militias now making deals with gangs and allowing trafficking in their territories.[13]

The political intervention of militias in recent years is not surprising given the support they are receiving from Brazil’s far-right president. In 2018, Marielle Franco, a Rio City Councilor and member of the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party, was assassinated by two former militia members. Franco opposed the level of state violence in favelas and strongly opposed the agenda of the current government. While it is unknown who ordered the assassination, commentators have pointed out the close personal connection between Jair Bolsonaro and both ex-police assassins.[14]

Gangs and traditional police bodies are not the only sources of violence in Brazil’s favelas, as politically motivated and economically motivated violence is often perpetrated by the militias. Many segments of Brazil’s society and state apparatus support the militias due to their stated aim of combatting gangs, but their extrajudicial attacks on favela residents means that they often do as much harm to civilians as they do to gang members. In 2018, a report found that 2 million people lived in Rio favelas controlled by militias, and while definitive numbers do not exist for militia members or areas controlled, they operate across Brazil.

Further Reading

  1. For news updates on militia activities in Brazil, see
  2. For more information on the connection between the Bolsonaro government and the militias, see
  3. For more information on the use of militias by agribusiness to harass small, often indigenous, landowners:
  4. For data and analysis on the high level of police violence in Brazil:


Barbara, Vanessa. “The Rise of the Milicia State.” The New York Times. 10 Apr 2019. Accessed 16 May 2020.

McLeod-Roberts, Luke (2007) Paramilitary Games, NACLA Report on the Americas, 40:4, 20-25, DOI: 10.1080/10714839.2007.11722302

Phillips, Dom. “Lesser Evil”: how Brazil’s militias wield terror to seize power from gangs.” The Guardian. 12 Jul 2018. Accessed 16 May 2020.

[1] Phillips.

[2] Barbara.

[3] Barbara.

[4] Barbara.


[6] McLeod-Roberts, 22.




[10] McLeod-Roberts, 20.

[11] McLeod-Roberts, 23.

[12] McLeod-Roberts, 25.

[13] Phillips.

[14] Barbara.

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