Vigilante militias are alleged to have taken over Rio de Janeiro slums, ruling as feudal lords and imposing taxes, as a result of the collapse of legal policing in these areas.
The vigilante militias are made up of off-duty police officers and former police officers. They work to expel drug traffickers and other criminals from favelas, known as Brazil's poorest and roughest neighborhoods, to set up protection rackets themselves.
According to Rio De Janeiro's public security department, 92 favelas are now controlled by militias, up from 42 in April 2005. They take over a new neighborhood at an average of 12 days.
Sociologist Ignacio Cano, who works for the Rio de Janeiro State University, said that the root of the phenomenon is a quest by corrupt police officers for more money, against the backdrop of falling drug profits and a drop in bribery.
These officers have decided to take direct control of the areas and seek other ways to extract cash from Rio's poorest, he said.
Militias then demand protection money from the neighborhood they have captured: taxing residents five to seven U.S. dollars per head for living in the area; demanding two dollars for each tank of natural gas, the most common source of heat for cooking; and charging local taxis for entering the area.
The rule by militias has also led to other forms of illegal business, such as selling pirate connections to cable television services, arranging rental, running the slum's property and charging taxes for new construction.
The sociologist gave the example of Rio das Pedras, a 12,800-home slum, where as many as half the residents could have illegal cable connections.
A militia could earn 210,000 dollars a month from the slum, much more than drug traffickers could pay in bribes.
Luiz Eduardo Soares, a former deputy director of the city's Public Security Ministry, said that the militias have created a society not unlike medieval feudalism. The state does not interfere with the barons' whims. As they are mainly run by police, there is little hope of ousting them.
The militias now have serious influence on local politics. In Rio das Pedras, the candidate sponsored by the militias won a major slice of the vote, while the candidate backed by local drug dealer Miltinho do Dende merely won 200 votes.
Evicted from their traditional areas by militias, Rio's drug dealers are turning to other areas for profits, including the middle-and upper-class neighborhoods, said Cesar Maia, mayor of Rio de Janeiro.