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Extortion by Rogue Police Gangs Is Booming in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Militias operating in Rio’s impoverished neighborhoods are affecting 2 million people across Rio and 14 other cities.

The town of Itaboraí on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

The town of Itaboraí on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Photographer: Evgeny Makarov/Bloomberg

A new cigarette, Gift, went on sale early last year in the bars and newspaper kiosks of Itaboraí, a crumbling former oil town on Rio de Janeiro’s outskirts. At just under a dollar a pack, Gift quickly cornered the market in contraband tobacco in the sweltering city that, despite a population of almost 240,000, looks and feels abandoned. Its dominance wasn’t because of the Paraguayan product’s quality. Rather, police say, it marked the arrival of a murderous militia that forced vendors to sell it.

About 30 miles east of Rio, Itaboraí has been ravaged by recession, crime, and corruption—the same forces that have ground down Brazil and drove voters to elect hard-liner Jair Bolsonaro as president last year. Ten years ago the city looked set to ride the commodities boom. Now the gargantuan cluster of gleaming metal chimneys and gas flares of the petrochemical plant Comperj, built by oil giant Petrobras, stands virtually idle, and a violent paramilitary group is picking over the economy’s bones.