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On the night of May 14, 2008, a reporting team from O Dia, one of Rio de Janeiro’s major dailies, was taken captive in the Favela do Batan in the West Zone neighborhood of Realengo by a group of armed men. The reporters were investigating the phenomenon of milícias, which have imposed a brutal form of order on a broad swath of the city’s poor neighborhoods since emerging eight years ago as a counterforce against Rio’s notoriously violent drug gangs.
But the journalists soon found themselves part of the story. Their captors, including men who were obviously police, beat the reporters and subjected them to electric shocks. The torture sessions were punctuated with a harsh interrogation about the journalists’ backgrounds and sources. As far as their captors were concerned, it was the journalists who were guilty of threatening law and order. As O Dia editor Ana Miguez recounted, one of the torturers complained, “We kill ourselves working here, we get shot at by bums so that you can come here and ruin our social project. We aren’t bandits.”
Maybe not. But that is small comfort to the people of Rio, where even law and order and the need for security in the continent’s poorest neighborhoods can prove dangerously counterproductive. The milícias are so firmly established that, until recently, any substantive discussion of political alternatives in many parts of the city was silenced.
The journalists were released by the milícianos with a warning that they would be killed if they ever publicized what happened to them. Two weeks later, the article was published, sparking a genuine effort to curb the groups’ power. Until then, the gangs had been assured of benign neglect from Rio’s political establishment. Much of their violence was directed against the poor, but with the assault on the media—representatives of the middle class—the political pendulum began to swing dramatically…
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