Belem, Brazil – In Belem’s Guama neighbourhood, Breno* and his crew smoked cannabis and drank beer on a rickety wooden bridge, built over a canal of polluted water.
“Don’t worry, no one will rob you here,” said Breno, 19. “Anyone who robs gets a hole in their hand.”
But the bravado quickly gave way to vulnerability.
“I can’t walk here at night,” he told Al Jazeera. “They’ll kill me. The silver car will get me.”
The “silver car” is a chilling reference to the preferred vehicle used by murderous paramilitary gangs when they commit executions in this Brazilian Amazon city. Led by serving or former police officers, the paramilitary gangs are known locally as “militias”.
In recent years, the groups have emerged as the dominant criminal force of this Amazon port city, capital of Para state. At the same time, national drug cartels have expanded in the city, leading to bloody turf wars.
Belem’s murder rate was 68 per 100,000 residents in 2017, the third-highest for a Brazilian capital, according to the Brazil Public Security Forum.
Victims are overwhelmingly poor young men of colour from peripheral neighbourhoods like Guama.
In May, three hooded gunmen here executed 11 bar patrons – six women and five men – in broad daylight, with gunshots to the head.
A video, filmed after the incident, showed bloody, bullet-riddled corpses that had fallen between plastic chairs and tables. Of the eight men poised to stand trial for the slaughter, four are police officers.
“They (militias) make their own laws,” said Guama resident Jacqueline*.
With its colonial-era architecture and unique regional cuisine, Belem is a gateway for tourists travelling to the Amazon’s stunning river beaches. But its sprawling metropolitan region of 2.5 million has some of the worst indicators of poverty, inequality, housing and basic sanitation of Brazil‘s big cities.
“We lose on average two young people a week here,” said Jacqueline, 28, standing in one of the ramshackle brick and timber homes served by an unpaved path. “Lack of opportunity is killing our young people.”
Militias emerged in the late-2000s as groups of off-duty police formed death squads, with the backing of local businesses, to eliminate drug traffickers and petty thieves in periphery neighbourhoods.
“They came to be accepted and seen by many as a necessary evil,” said Carlos Bordalo, a Para state legislator. “They had a lot of support.”
But they soon imposed their own rules, including curfews and taxes.
The 2014 murder of military police Corporal Antonio Figueiredo, known as “Pet”, who led a militia in Guama, was a pivotal moment. He was shot dead by a drug gang he was allegedly extorting and, hours later, 10 young men were killed in retaliation.
A Para state assembly inquiry, launched in 2015 and led by Bordalo, concluded that police colluded in the killings and militias operated in the state with institutional support. Since then, the groups have flourished.
“There was a war with drug traffickers and the militias emerged more powerful,” said Armando Brasil, a military prosecutor who investigates police misconduct.
Today, about 20 militias operate in Belem. The groups are fluid; often cooperating, sometimes warring.
“They are present in every neighbourhood,” Belem Homicide Division Chief Delcio Santos told Al Jazeera.
The groups utilise state equipment and training for crimes like paid executions and extortion, according to investigators, who also say the militias are involved in arms dealing, burglaries and even bank robberies.
Militias profit from the drug trade too, investigators said. Dealers who refuse to pay taxes are hunted down and killed. In some neighbourhoods, militia control informal transport networks and sale goods and services like cooking gas and cable TV.
Each scam can pull in thousands of dollars a month, officials said. Meanwhile, a military police officer starting salary in Para is around $750.
Some Belem residents support militias. A moto-taxi driver living in the Pedreira neighbourhood said they were “cleaning up the city”.
The rise of the groups mirrors their counterparts in Rio de Janeiro where two million people live in militia-influenced areas, according to an investigation by the G1 News Website.
Prosecutor Armando Brasil said the militias’ influence over Belem politics remains light compared to Rio, where several local representatives have been charged with militia related crimes.
But Brasil warned, “Here is a strong connection between these militias and sectors of public administration in Belem.”
He added, “it’s difficult for a militia to survive without political support.”
The rise of militias in Belem has been accompanied by the growth of national drug cartels in the city, most notably Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command.
Its leaders command the organisation from inside maximum-security prisons, where Belem drug kingpins were transferred and became co-opted by the larger gang, investigators said.
Given the power that militias have over drug markets in Belem, the Red Command has offered large cash rewards for gang members to kill police officers and steal their guns.
“The order from the prisons is to expel police from the periphery,” said Aiala Colares, an organised crime expert and researcher of geography at the State University of Para.
For drug gangs, Belem is attractive. It’s the second-most populous city in the Amazon region, which has become an important trafficking destination in recent years and also has nearby ports for national and international distribution.
Currently, the Red Command is trying to dominate the Cabanagem neighbourhood, where five young men were killed in January, allegedly in revenge for the murder of a policeman. Red Command graffiti is painted on a wall near where one of the killings took place.
“Being on the street after 10 at night is taking a risk,” said Samuel*, a 22-year-old resident of the neighbourhood.
According to police officials, to resist the Red Command, Cabanagem’s long-established drug gang may even be enlisting the help of one of the two militias also trying to dominate the area.
“We see in Belem, police officers working with drug traffickers, providing services like private security and arms,” said Jose Barboza, a Belem-based prosecutor, “but when their interests are not met, the groups enter in conflict and such events like massacres occur.”
Days before the bar killing in Guama in May, three police officers were murdered. In 2018, 44 military police officers were murdered in Para, second only to Rio de Janeiro.
Across Brazil, “massacres” as they are dubbed, have typically – but not exclusively – been committed by off-duty police officers after a colleague was killed in recent years.
Since 2016, rogue police groups are responsible for at least nine mass killings in Belem, investigators said.
“They are out for revenge, not for profit,” said Sergeant Silvano Oliveira, a Belem city councilman and former police officer. But residents unaffiliated with the crime are also regularly caught in the crossfire.
In October 2018, municipal rubbish man Savio Conceicao, 22, was one of 10 killed in the Tapana neighbourhood, when he went out to buy an acai for his son. Five days earlier, a police sergeant had been killed there.
A civil police source, speaking on condition of anonymity about the case, said someone involved told him they “wanted to see the law fulfilled” because they “believe the law doesn’t work”.
But the source also said that militiamen often use the chaos that ensues when a police officer is murdered as a cover to merely kill opponents and rivals and furthering business interests.
With low salaries, military police officers in Belem often live in neighbourhoods that are dominated by drug traffickers, which some analysts say encourages militia activity.
“The mentality is, ‘I don’t want to be afraid and so I will dominate and make others be afraid.’ It’s a vicious cycle,” said Cristiane Lima, a reserve military police colonel.
She said that police officers should have the offer of designated housing.
In January, authorities arrested military police corporal Heleno Carmo, known as Belem’s “most dangerous militiaman”, after he uploaded a threatening video to social media.
Leno was first arrested in 2017 when he and six other police were accused of coordinating a massacre that left 28 dead. A policeman had been killed prior to the massacre.
Since the beginning of 2019, when a new state government took office, authorities have cracked down on organised crime.
In March, 270 National Guard troops arrived to provide security support in neighbourhoods worst affected by violence, including Guama and Cabanagem.
The troops left in June and the state government launched a new strategy to reduce violence called, “Territories of Peace”, which aims to bolster social services.
In the first six months of the year, homicides in Belem fell by 47 percent, according to local government data.
“The real challenge now is to maintain this falling rate of violence,” said Ualame Machado, state security secretary for Para.
Rob Muggah, of the Igrape Institute, said that “effective measures take time – a challenge given electoral cycles and economic volatility.”
He added, “But when violence reduction measures are ended prematurely – either because of a change of leadership or lack of funds – the homicide-reduction effects can vanish.”
Colares, the organised crime expert, said it was likely that Belem’s militias were lying low but had not been significantly damaged.
Next year, Brazil will hold municipal elections where groups like militias and drug gangs have good opportunities to profit.
“Right now, they are biding their time,” he said.
*Al Jazeera protects the identities of those living in areas where militias and drug gangs are active by not disclosing their full names.