In their current form, militias were established in Rio de Janeiro in the late ’90s and early 2000s, under the pretext that they were protecting residents from drug traffickers. Although more civilians are joining, the militias have been dominated by active-duty and retired police officers, who essentially assume control of suburban slums, or favelas, under the guise of defending them.Where government cannot maintain order, somebody else will. And it is just a libertarian fantasy that unofficial police forces would be less burdensome than the official kind.
Once they have a foothold in the community, militia members extort money from residents and shopkeepers (in other words, they demand payments that are partly for protection against themselves). They also control local unlicensed public transportation, since city buses are scarce or nonexistent in remote areas. They offer illegal internet and television connections, charge commissions on real estate deals, and control the supply of gas and water. In the Gardênia Azul favela, for example, militia members collect money from street vendors and even popcorn carts.
It’s a kind of mafia, with Brazilian peculiarities.
One of them is irony. After careful deliberation with their accountants (at least that’s what I imagine), and in the name of business diversification, some militias have entered the field of drug trafficking. Others have decided to work with their former rivals from drug gangs, selling them weapons and recruiting members from their ranks. In 2015, according to the newspaper O Dia, a militia “sold” the area of Morro do Jordão to a drug gang for three million Brazilian reais, or about $800,000. So much for the righteous excuse of vigilante justice.
According to the news website G1, two million people in the Rio metropolitan area live in territories controlled by militias. A 2013 academic report concluded that of the roughly 1,000 favelas in the city, 45 percent are controlled by militia organizations and 37 percent by drug gangs. The main difference is that police brutality is less common in militia-controlled neighborhoods, probably because those groups have strong ties to the official state security apparatus.
Incidentally, Rio's most powerful militia is called the "Justice League."