‘My hands went cold’: Rio’s reporters risk death to reveal criminal ties between police, politicians and mafia

<span>Posters showing councilwoman Marielle Franco, whose murder has inspired a generation of journalists to probe Rio’s underworld and its ties to police and politicians.</span><span>Photograph: Silvia Izquierdo/AP</span>
Posters showing councilwoman Marielle Franco, whose murder has inspired a generation of journalists to probe Rio’s underworld and its ties to police and politicians.Photograph: Silvia Izquierdo/AP

Rafael Soares’s phone rang and his blood froze. “Ronnie Lessa Googled you,” a federal police contact on the other end of the line told the Brazilian reporter as he stood in his newsroom one morning in 2019.

Any Rio crime journalist worth their salt knew that being investigated by such a man was extremely bad news. Lessa was reputedly one of the city’s most in-demand contract killers: a battle-hardened police combatant turned assassin whose crimes had enabled him to buy a speedboat named after a Belgian machine gun called the Minimi.

Some called Lessa “Perneta” – one leg – because of a bomb attack in which he lost his left limb. A former colleague called him “a killing machine”.

“I freaked out … my hands went cold,” Soares said of his source’s telephone warning. “I didn’t tell anyone. Not my mum, not my wife. No one.”

But despite this, over the next three years the now 33-year-old reporter decided that Lessa’s story – and that of the underworld he inhabited – still desperately needed to be told. Soares embarked on a quest to understand the hitman who had Googled his name and to fathom how Rio’s police force had managed to churn out highly trained rogue cops who were being recruited by organised crime.

The journalist’s disturbing findings can be found in Milicianos, a new book that is part of a growing body of work investigating Rio’s mafia-infected underbelly.

Decades of battles between drug factions and police in Rio’s favelas (slums or shantytowns) have been explored in literature and films such as Fernando Meirelles’s thriller City of God or José Padilha’s Elite Squad. But never before has there been so much scrutiny of the criminal triumvirate of which Lessa was part: cops turned contract killers like him; ruthless paramilitary crews known as “militias”; and an immensely powerful and wealthy coterie of politically connected gambling mafia bosses called bicheiros.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of books, podcasts and documentaries about the nexus between such groups that paints a chilling portrait of Brazil’s most famous city.

Soares traced the upsurge in such explorations to March 2018, when the favela-born politician Marielle Franco was shot dead as she drove home – a crime to which Lessa, 53, would later confess and for which he is awaiting trial.

Until then, Lessa had been famed as a fearless frontline warrior, celebrated for his daring attacks on the cocaine traffickers who have commandeered many Rio favelas since the 1980s.

But Franco’s killing revealed an even more sinister side to the now disgraced cop and thrust his secretive and vicious world into public view. The crime kickstarted a series of intertwined police inquiries which exposed something deeply rotten at the core of Rio’s security establishment and society.

“Had it not been for the Marielle case, none of us would have been able to write the books we wrote,” said Soares, who is a special correspondent for the newspaper O Globo. “[It] threw a spotlight on an underworld that had until that point remained untouched. It was an opportunity to start digging into the Rio underworld to see what lay beneath.

“The underworld was hidden down a manhole with a cover – the Marielle case removes this cover, and inside you find police, gambling bosses, militias – all these underworld connections that had previously been protected.”

Soares and his fellow writers encountered a fearsome company of characters as they descended into subterranean Rio, poring over police investigations and newspaper archives and talking to police and underworld sources.

Among a multitude of corrupt police officers and outlaws with nicknames that include Batman, Robin, Mata Rindo (Kill Laughing), Erotic and Bob the Bomb, the stories of two men stand out.

There is Lessa, a tattoo artist who spent his youth embellishing the bodies of beach bums before joining the military police in 1991 and sowing terror in Rio’s favelas as part of a notorious tactical group called Patamo 500. Equipped with the shooting skills the police taught him – and investigation techniques that helped him to avoid being caught – Lessa launched a parallel career as a gun runner and hitman, and was suspected, Soares said, of dozens of assassinations.

And there was Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, a special forces operative turned mobster who was an avid equestrian with an alleged passion for bloodsports. “Sometimes he hunted animals, sometimes people,” the veteran crime reporter Sérgio Ramalho writes in Decaído, his new book about “Captain Adriano”.

Nóbrega, who had well-documented ties to the family of Brazil’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and taught Bolsonaro’s politician son to shoot, allegedly ran an agency of assassins from a bakery called the Flavour of the Forest. As customers queued for freshly baked rolls, “Adriano and his cronies [would sit around a table at the back] planning ‘perfect crimes’ that the police would never solve”, Soares writes in his book.

The alleged victims of Nóbrega’s bakery killers included the president of a top samba school and a paramilitary mobster murdered at an upmarket country club by a gunman in a mask. Nóbrega was himself killed by police in 2020, while on the run in north-east Brazil.

Ramalho said he wrote the book about Nóbrega out of fascination over why such highly-trained police officers abandoned law enforcement to embrace crime.

“He was a sort of Brazilian Raskolnikov [the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment] who at some point decides: ‘Well, there’s no God and no divine retribution – so I’ll do what I please’,” said Ramalho, 54, who reports for the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism after 20 years at O Globo and O Dia.

The recent investigations into such characters make it clear that, far from being nefarious lone wolves, these figures are intimately connected to senior members of Rio’s security apparatus. Soares’s book opens with a quote from Orlando Curicica, a mobster serving 25 years for murder.

“If I decide to talk, Rio de Janeiro is finished,” he says. “They’ll have to reinvent the civil police. They’ll have to reinvent the military police.”

Earlier this year came apparent confirmation of the gangster’s claim when federal police accused Rio’s former civil police chief, Rivaldo Barbosa, of being one of the three masterminds of Franco’s murder, alongside two powerful local politicians.

As he sat at home the day after Barbosa’s arrest, the politician Marcelo Freixo, who was Franco’s mentor and friend, voiced astonishment at the former police chief’s alleged crime. “In Rio, I only ever trust people up to a point. But … I never thought he might have been involved in this,” said Freixo, who recalled calling Barbosa for help as he raced to the scene of Franco’s murder.

Barbosa denies the allegations, with his lawyer defending him as “a good man”. Freixo said the arrests proved something he had been saying since 2008 when he led a parliamentary inquiry into Rio’s mafias: “There is no separating crime, police and politics.”

We still haven’t seen anything … We’ve lit up one part of the basement

Rio’s former security chief, Luiz Eduardo Soares, said its police forces undoubtedly contained “decent and honest professionals”. But he believed police institutions had been “taken over by criminals” in recent years. “We are not talking about a criminal infiltration because these criminal operators are police chiefs, they are officers. They are the criminal protagonists. It’s not crime coming in. It’s a process of institutional decay,” added Soares, who is not related to the journalist.

Luiz Eduardo Soares saw that decay up close when he was appointed Rio’s security chief in 1999 – but he didn’t last long in the job. The anthropologist was controversially sacked after just over a year, having attempted to stop the rot. He fled Brazil with his family, smuggled to the airport in the boot of a car, and only returned to live in Rio five years later.

The journalists exploring Rio’s underworld and its political ramifications face similar risks. In 2012, Ramalho was running on the beach when he received a call from a police source alerting him to a plot to assassinate him involving Nóbrega and two mafia chiefs.

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The journalist raced to his newsroom in an armoured vehicle sent by his editors. “The only problem was that our bulletproof cars only protected against pistols and these guys killed people with rifles,” he said with a grim laugh. Hours later, Ramalho left the city and spent weeks posing as a tourist along the coast. “I told my family, ‘I’m going away for a while – don’t try to call me, I’ll contact you,’” he recalled.

The police chief put in charge of the investigation into the threat on Ramalho’s life was none other than Barbosa.

Soares, who has also made a podcast called Pistoleiros (Gunmen), recognises the dangerous nature of his work, but vows to press on, with his reporting driven by his affection for his hometown. “My work is about Rio, and I do it because I love this city and I don’t want to leave. So I am trying somehow to make it a better place.”

There is much reporting left to do. “We still haven’t seen anything … We’ve lit up one part of the basement,” Soares said. “But most of it remains in the dark.”