RIO DE JANEIRO — When several Brazilian journalists decided to go undercover here in May to report on life in one of the hundreds of slums that have sprouted up around Rio, they thought they had chosen carefully.
The slum they picked, Batan, was under the control of a militia that had expelled a drug gang last September. The journalists assumed that a slum under the thumb of a gun-toting militia, which included off-duty policemen, would be safer than one controlled by drug dealers.
They were wrong. And what they lived through has become a public scandal that has focused attention on the growing danger posed by these militias, which have supplanted drug gangs as the violent overlords who run many of Rio’s slums and their illicit enterprises, often with links to corrupt police officers and politicians.
On the night of May 14 six ninja-hooded men entered the rented house where a 28-year-old reporter for the daily O Dia, a photographer and a driver were staying. They captured the three, with a neighbor, and tortured them for more than six hours.
They made them play Russian roulette, nearly suffocated them with plastic bags, delivered electric shocks and slapped and kicked them. They threatened to sexually assault the reporter, who is a woman, and kill all of the captives, according to written accounts the reporter and the 31-year-old driver gave the Rio police organized crime unit.
Brazil is undergoing an economic boom that is lifting millions out of poverty. But in Rio, the incident, which came to light through a series of articles in O Dia, has become a prominent sign of the strains on this city, which is plagued by violence and a notoriously corrupt police force.
Despite the economic growth, Rio’s slums, or favelas, have proliferated and now may number more than 800. The militias have multiplied with them, as battles with drug gangs have taken a toll on legitimate police forces.
Low morale and pay have prompted police officers, firefighters and prison workers to moonlight as militia members, police officers and criminologists who have studied them say.
The militias have filled a vacuum of authority by promising residents security in exchange for payments and the chance to take over many illegal businesses — including controlling the supply of water and natural gas, running gambling machines, pirating cable television connections, and of course, the drug trade.
For many communities, the militias are the lesser of two evils. They gain sympathy from residents because they battle Rio’s “barbaric” drug dealers, said Claudio Ferraz, the chief of the Rio state police organized crime unit, known as Draco. But the militias are replacing one form of criminality with another, he said.
“They are an attack on the principle of democracy,” he said. “They are a cancer, a tumor.”
The estimated 60 to 100 militias have powerful connections and are often intertwined not only with the city’s police but also with politicians, who offer them safe harbor in exchange for ensuring votes or cash from residents.
Jerônimo Guimarães Filho, a city councilman, was arrested in December on suspicion of forming a militia. His cabinet chief, Kennedy dos Santos de Aragão, said the charge was untrue.
Álvaro Lins, a congressman and Rio’s former police chief, also is charged with helping to form armed gangs, which he “vehemently denies” on his Web site.
The police in Rio have been hesitant to discipline their own because of a history of violent retaliation. But the push by Draco is the most visible of a “timid crackdown” on militias, said Rodrigo Pimentel, a former police captain and co-author of “Elite Squad,” a book about the Rio SWAT team.
In the past year Draco has arrested 140 people, a majority military or civil police officers. Of the police forces in more than 100 precincts in Rio, only Draco, the state police organized crime unit, is actively investigating militias, Mr. Pimentel said.
Last week the police arrested Davi Liberato de Araújo, 31, suspected of being the No. 2 in the local militia hierarchy, in connection with torturing the journalists.