Letter From Brazil: A Slain Judge So Quickly Forgotten

In Rio de Janeiro, militias – often involving corrupt police – have taken control of the notorious favelas and worked their way into local politics. Judge Patricia Acioli was one of the few people brave enough to go after them. She paid with her life.

a cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
a cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Nicolas Bourcier

NITEROI -- There's not much to like about the cemeteries here. The passageways are empty, the tombs neglected. Even the otherwise warm spring air here in the Southern Hemisphere seems to have avoided this desolate place. If this were Mexico the graves might be covered in flowers and other offerings. But here, on the outskirts of Rio, death is anonymous, the tombs of the departed all but forgotten.

The gravestone of Patricia Acioli is a case in point. The wreaths have already disappeared. Nowhere is there even a mention of her name. Buried in the municipal cemetery of Niteroi, a city located across the bay from Rio, Acioli lived to be just 47. A judge renowned for her toughness in the fight against organized crime, she died on Aug. 11 – after being shot 21 times.

At the time, Acioli's brutal killing triggered a huge wave of emotion in Brazil. Her funeral drew a packed crowd. "If you want to do something for her, it's out there in the city that you ought to try," one of the cemetery guards told the group.

Authorities have tried to do just that with a series of investigations that resulted in the incarceration of 11 police officers and the recent firing of Mario Sergio Duarte, the powerful chief of Rio's military police. His replacement, Erir Ribeiro da Costa Filho, went on to suspend Duarte's entire senior staff – about 30 officers in all. Still, the many lawyers and human rights defenders who have been involved in the various inquiries are far from digging up all of the details of the affair.

The murder of the judge was the third case of its kind in Brazil over the past eight years. The first to take place in the state of Rio, it casts a harsh light on an alarming situation: entire zones of this region are dominated by the mafia and awash in police corruption.

Militias – made up of active and retired police officers, firefighters, prison guards and bodyguards – have slowly but surely replaced the drug traffickers who had previously dominated the favelas and other poor sectors of Rio. Offering their supposed protection, the militias force residents to pay a "security tax."

Lesser of two evils?

Experts say that within just a couple of years, the militias have managed to infiltrate nearly all of the spheres of public power. More and more elected officials – at both the municipal and state levels – rise from their ranks. Some observers say the slow takeover by the militias is even more dangerous than the influence previously exerted by drug traffickers.

The militias have also received support from some unlikely places. The former mayor of Rio, the outspoken and opportunistic Cesar Maia, said in a 2006 interview with O Globo that the militias are "the lesser of two evils' and a type of "community self-defense" against the drug traffickers.

Two years later, Rio's current mayor, Eduardo Paes, came out in clear defense of the militias in comments he made on the Globo television station. In places where the state has lost its authority, the militias "provide the population with peace," he said.

Comments like that are untenable today. Even as early as 2008, an investigating committee led by the tenacious and courageous Marcelo Freixo, a member of parliament, uncovered links between certain militia groups and local elected officials. The committee's final report resulted in several hundred arrests. Among those arrested were several deputies and city council members.

Patricia Acioli followed the committee's efforts closely. Over the next few years she oversaw the incarceration of more than 60 police officers accused of involvement with violent gangs. The majority were convicted on homicide charges.

A week before her murder, Acioli made her way to the central police station in Rio to complain about threats she had received from police officers in Sao Goncalo, where she works, and in Niteroi, where she lived.

On Aug. 11, the day of her assassination, Acioli opened for the last time a file on two police officers implicated in the death of an 18-year-old favela resident. According to Felipe Ettore, head of Rio's police homicide unit, the two suspected assassins knew Acioli was preparing to order their arrest. By murdering her, they hoped to protect themselves, Ettore explained in a press conference. What the suspects didn't know is that on that very day, Acioli had already signed their arrest warrants.

For years, Judge Acioli received death threats. Several times she wrote letters to the authorities complaining about the threats and asking for protection. Recently her named appeared alongside other judges on a 12-person hit list. Authorities discovered the document after arresting one of the militia bosses.

Patricia Acioli was killed in the wee hours of the morning, ambushed in her car by a group of masked killers. She'd worked late into the night. And she was alone - just as she is now in the Niteroi cemetery.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - JorgeBrazil

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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