RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio de Janeiro civil police arrested five leaders of a powerful militia gang, including an active-duty police major, during an operation in the city's West Zone on Tuesday morning.
Public prosecutors said in a news conference that they seized documents that map out systematic extortion of residents and businesses through fines for their "services," and an illicit real estate scheme where militia occupied and sold land illegally. The militia members were also under investigation for bribing state agents, handling stolen cargo and operating a loan-shark ring, among other things. Eight other militia members have been issued arrest warrants but were not found during the operation.
"This criminal organization has terrorized the population," said Fabio Barucke, a civil police officer who took part in the investigation.
Militia groups control vast areas of Rio de Janeiro's periphery. Many members are active or retired police, military and firefighters and extort residents for basic services like electricity, cable television and transportation. Since the 1990s, militia groups have grown to be among the most powerful and feared criminal organizations in Rio.
Militia members often have connections to politicians in cities and the legislature of Rio de Janeiro state. Soon after the operation, local news outlets reported that President Jair Bolsonaro's son, Senator-elect Flavio Bolsonaro, had given public service awards to two of the alleged militia members, one who was arrested and another with an outstanding warrant.
In a statement, he said he always acted in defense of security forces and that he's given hundreds of awards.
Flavio Bolsonaro also employed the mother of one of the wanted militia members in his cabinet when he was a state deputy, according to reports. The mother was one of several employees flagged by financial regulators for irregular payments in his cabinet.
In his statement, Flavio Bolsonaro said that the alleged criminal's mother was hired by someone else and that he couldn't be held responsible for things he didn't know about.
The younger Bolsonaro has been at the center of mounting questions about irregular payments in his administration as a state deputy.
"I continue to be the victim of a defamation campaign," he wrote.
The day began with reports that the men arrested were possibly tied to the murder of Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was gunned down with her driver in March of last year.
Several public officials, including former Security Secretary Richard Nunes, have said militias were involved in her assassination.
Prosecutors said the men were not arrested for that crime but would be investigated.
"We don't rule out the possibility of their participation in the Marielle Franco crime," Simone Sibilio, a public prosecutor overseeing the militia operation told reporters Tuesday. "All those arrested will be questioned, with the expectation that they will collaborate with other investigations."