Rule of Law Under Attack in Rio de Janeiro

August 17, 2011

Judge Patricia Acioli
Judge Patricia Acioli

Militia groups in Rio de Janeiro are gaining ground, while one of the state’s most effective enforcers of rule of law is now dead.

On Thursday, August 11, 2011 Judge Patrícia Acioli was in her car outside of her house in Níteroi, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, when hooded gunmen approached her in several vehicles and shot her at close range 21 times.

Judge Acioli had been “marked for death”.  She, along with 12 other judges and prosecutors, had received threats from former police officers and criminal gangs who were threatened by her effort to uphold the law.  The judge had previously convicted several former police officers with charges of corruption.

In a country where impunity is rampant, Acioli was known as a tough judge who did not back down from investigating cases of police involvement in death squads, militias and drug gangs operating in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan region. Over the past decade she had sentenced around 60 police officers involved in death squads and militia groups. The death of Judge Patrícia Acioli, who was killed for upholding the rule of law and bringing criminals to justice, has dealt a blow to the judicial system in Brazil.

Militia groups control poor communities with violence, whilst extorting money for the provision of security, as well as gas, transport, cable TV and other services, in Rio de Janeiro. The spread of the milicias across favelas in Rio de Janeiro was initially trumpeted as an important and valiant challenge to the longstanding domination of drug factions and the apparent failure of military style police incursions mounted by the state. The growth of the milicia groups can be attributed to decades of public security policy based on negligence, human rights violations and impunity of perpetrators, allowing criminal and corrupt police officers to thrive at the cost of those working tirelessly to serve the community.

Judge Acioli’s murder illustrates Rio de Janeiro’s problems with police corruption and organized crime. In late 2008, Rio de Janeiro’s state Parliament led an inquiry aimed at combating the militia groups. Despite more than 500 arrests of militia members and high profile trials of corrupt police officers since then, little has been done to tackle the illegal economic activities that fuel these groups.

The killing of Judge Acioli must be thoroughly and independently investigated and those responsible should be brought to justice. Furthermore, in order to prevent an escalation in criminal gangs and activity, the recommendations of the 2008 Parliamentary Inquiry into the militias, which Acioli herself supported, should be fully implemented. This includes clamping down on the black economy that sustains and entrenches police corruption and organized crime, which affect the lives of thousands of people in Brazil.