Judge's Murder Shows Rio's `Problem of the Decade': Dom Phillips

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Even in a city as murderous as Rio de Janeiro, the killing of Judge Patricia Acioli on Aug. 12 was a shock. According to police she was ambushed by two motorbikes and at least one car as she returned to her condominium that morning, and killed in a hail of 21 bullets. She left behind three children.

The assassination continues to reverberate in the local media almost two months later, not only for its brutality, but because it was apparently carried out by corrupt police -- highlighting a growing menace as Brazil tries to get its crime-ridden favelas under control.

Acioli was a judge in the municipality of Sao Goncalo, in Niteroi, a city across the bay from Rio. She was particularly fearless in acting against what are known as militias -- criminal mafias made up of former and serving police officers. Hours before her death, she had ordered the arrest of eight officers from the Sao Goncalo Tactical Action Group (or GAT, a SWAT team) in connection with the death of an 18-year-old in a police operation.

Several of those officers are believed to have killed Acioli under orders from their commander. All the accused officers are now in custody.

On Oct. 2, "Fantastico," a hugely popular Sunday-night television show, broadcast CCTV images of two of the GAT officers outside Acioli's condominium on the afternoon before the shooting.

"Exclusive images obtained by `Fantastico' show that police suspected of taking part in the assassination of Judge Patricia Acioli passed by the condominium where she lived and studied the entrance and exit routes they would use a few hours later," the report said.

"Fantastico" also broadcast an interview with Cpl. Sergio Costa Jr., one of the officers in the images, in which he confessed to his involvement in the murder in the hope of reducing his sentence. He sat in shadow, his face hidden, saying he feared for the safety of his wife and daughter.

Costa was asked how he felt.

"Regretting a lot. A lot. Regretting a lot," he said. He was then asked if he regretted his actions immediately, or only when he was imprisoned. "Some minutes afterward I was already regretting," he replied.

The sinister backdrop to this case is the increasing power of Rio's militias, run by corrupt police with political connections. The squad suspected of Acioli's murder was also allegedly involved in collecting arms, drugs and money from traffickers -- rewards that they called "the spoils of war" -- and in covering up police crimes. Acioli's pursuit of the battalion apparently sealed her fate.

Rio's government has made much of its policy of installing armed police bases -- called Police Pacification Units, or UPPs -- in its most dangerous neighborhoods. UPPs have forced drug gangs out of high-profile favelas such as Mangueira, near the Maracana soccer stadium. But critics say the policy is focused only on favelas near the sites of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. And that as drug gangs are forced out, militias like the one that allegedly killed Acioli have moved into the power vacuum.

On Sept. 8, the website Rio Radar posted a video interview with Paulo Storani, an academic and former captain in the elite BOPE squad of Rio's military police. Storani was, the site said, one of the inspirations for Roberto Nascimento, the hero of the hit Brazilian movie "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," about a BOPE officer battling the expanding power of militias. Storani said:

Militias are going to be the problem of the decade for Rio de Janeiro. Why? Because you are seeing a decline in the power of the narco-traffickers because of the UPPs. But it seems that the government doesn't have the capacity to fight the battle on two fronts. They are fighting narco-traffickers, which for 30 years have characterized public security in Rio de Janeiro, and also acting against the militias. So when you focus on only one criminal modality, you are permitting the other to evolve and structure itself.

Others argue that Acioli's murder is an isolated case. On Oct. 3, TV Globo's security commentator Rodrigo Pimentel said: "The case is worrying because it involves a colonel and weakens the intelligence service. But Patricia Acioli was the first judge from a criminal court to be assassinated in Brazil. She was an exception."

Writing on the site of O Globo newspaper, Lindberg Farias, a senator for Rio de Janeiro state from the ruling Workers' Party, argued that the judge's life and death should motivate wide-ranging reforms to the police force.

"Judge Patricia demonstrated, until the end, full confidence in the possibility of the construction of a just social order," Farias wrote.

"If the Brazilian police are devalued professionally, receive unworthy salaries and inadequate training, work in precarious and risky conditions, act in organizational structures that inhibit instead of capitalize on their capabilities, we have to offer alternatives and the perspectives of change."

He added: "I hope that the sacrifice of Patricia Acioli inspires us to mobilize. It's the minimum we should do to honor her memory."

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net