Vanderlei Almeida / AFP / Getty Images
Vanderlei Almeida / AFP / Getty Images

Gangs, militias set campaign rules in Rio favelas ahead of elections

Permission to hang posters can set candidates back $4,000 to $40,000 per neighborhood

RIO DE JANEIRO — The election posters of Cidinha Campos, a 72-year-old deputy in Rio de Janeiro’s state legislature, show her smiling amiably at the camera, wearing a pink bowed blouse in the kind of upbeat pose common on Brazil’s election placards.

Last month while putting up her posters in the Águia de Ouro (Golden Eagle) favela in the north of Rio, two of her supporters noticed that posters they put up earlier had been ripped down and burned. They tried to fix them — until a pair of helmeted men on motorcycles pulled up, armed with assault rifles.

“They said the area was owned,” Campos said, “and if they didn’t leave right away, they would set fire to our Kombi van with my campaigners inside. These guys knew these activists were working for me. It was a threat against me.”

It is election season in Brazil, and for many candidates and voters in Rio de Janeiro, that means a struggle to exercise their democratic rights in the face of pervasive pressure from organized crime groups looking to profit from the ballot box.

Most of Rio’s poor communities are the fiefs of either powerful drug gangs or militia factions often made up of off-duty police officers. Only a minority of the areas are controlled — in some cases only nominally — by the city’s favela pacification police.

Candidates are routinely told they must pay for access. Depending on the size and influence of the favela, a politician might be asked to pay $4,000 to $20,000 to campaign there, up to $40,000 to do so exclusively or as much as $120,000 for the support of a gang leader, which can supposedly secure victory.

As Campos found, those who do not pay are not welcome.

The authorities are unable to provide the security needed for free and fair elections in 41 favelas, including 10 with pacification units, according to a report by the state’s public security ministry presented to an electoral court last month.

They include three of the largest — Rocinha, Maré and Alemão which together are home to at least 300,000 people. The result is an atmosphere of fear. Many candidates admit privately they are asked to pay, but few dare speak publicly.

“The situation is very worrying,” said Paulo Roberto Bérenger, Rio’s electoral prosecutor. “Few candidates make complaints, but I do not think that reflects the reality. The situation on the ground is much worse than it may appear.”

Bérenger said candidates, who are often afraid to complain, are more likely to stay quiet or adapt to the “unacceptable” situation by paying off the militias.

“Rio has a history of violence, and a long-term failure by the authorities has allowed a parallel state to emerge,” he added. “In the favelas, people do not want to talk about it, but we know it happens. Anyone should be able to put posters anywhere in a democracy. But our democracy is still incomplete, because it does not guarantee people freedom.”

Although Bérenger supported an application for the military to be deployed to ensure security, Rio Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezão decided it was unnecessary. 

‘They said the area was owned. And if [my supporters] didn’t leave right away, they would set fire to our Kombi van with my campaigners inside.’

Cidinha Campos

deputy in Rio de Janeiro’s state legislature

Campos was one of the few who complained to the Civil Police, which has opened an investigation. According to several candidates, the militia that controls the eight favelas of Del Castilho — where her campaign workers were threatened — was touting the support of its 111,694 voters for a price of 100,000 reals ($41,335).

Her experience backs up concerns raised in the state security report that the militias were increasingly seeking to control voter registration.

“My staff received a document from the residents’ association with a list of the active voters in the eight favelas,” she said. “It appeared that those responsible had seen the voter registration documents of these people. Probably they have a copy of each too.

In Águia de Ouro, the only posters easily visible are those of Marcelo Simão, who is running for re-election as a state deputy. Al Jazeera America was unable to reach him for comment. Previously, in a local newspaper interview, he said the access he received was in exchange for his support for a candidate in 2016.

The concern over cash for access has exposed the limitations of the control that the much-trumpeted Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) have, with gangs and militias in several of the largest favelas still able to exert enough power to affect the elections.

When Al Jazeera America visited Complexo da Maré, which is under army occupation, many residents said that any campaign material for Luiz Fernando Pezão, the incumbent governor of Rio de Janeiro, and Marco Antônio Cabral, the son of Pezão’s immediate predecessor, who introduced the pacification program, is banned.

Three weeks ago a 35-year-old mason, who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety, put a Pezão placard outside his house in the Nova Holanda district, which is a stronghold of the Red Command drug gang. Within hours a man on a motorbike stopped outside his house. “You better take that board down. We don’t want Pezão to win,” he said the rider told him. “This is a warning to you not to create trouble.”

And in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil and also pacified, gang leaders informed former Environment Minister Carlos Minc that he was not allowed to enter.

“I was going to do an event there. But a few days before, my host called me and said it had to be canceled, as only those with the approval of the traffickers could campaign in Rocinha,” Minc said. “I was not directly threatened, but I got the message. I canceled the event, of course. I could not put my life and those who are close to me at risk.”

He said he didn’t make a formal complaint because he had no evidence.

“The person who passed on the message is afraid to talk. Everyone is afraid to talk,” he said, “but everyone who lives in the favelas knows that the drug gangs and militias will impose their candidates on the population, even in areas that have been pacified.

For now, Minc said, he’s avoiding campaigning in those favelas. Although he faced similar problems in previous elections, he had thought the introduction of pacification would allow him to campaign freely.

“But that’s not what’s happening,” he said.

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