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.
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.
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Photo - JorgeBrazil