Purported leader of criminal gang is slain at a beachfront restaurant in Rio de Janeiro

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The purported leader of an organized group was slain at a beachfront restaurant in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, according to a statement from police.

Sérgio Rodrigues da Costa Silva, 44, was fatally shot Sunday and found dead at the scene when Rio's military police arrived and cordoned off the area to investigate, police said.

Local media reports identified Silva as head of an organized crime group known as a militia, and said his group had charged residents for protection and dealt in real estate and stolen vehicles.

The assassination was reminiscent of a similar incident at a beachside eatery a few months ago, when gunmen killed three doctors and wounded a fourth in a gangland-style hit. It was widely believed to be a case of mistaken identity, with the hitmen believing one of the doctors to be a militia leader.

Militias in Brazil are distinct from drug trafficking gangs, which also control important areas of Rio. The militias emerged in the 1990s when they originally were made up mainly of former police officers, firefighters and soldiers who wanted to combat lawlessness in their neighborhoods. They charged residents for protection and other services, and more recently moved into drug trafficking themselves, as well as other criminal activities.

More than 10% of the 12 million residents in Rio's metropolitan area live in areas controlled by militias, according to a 2022 study by the non-profit Fogo Cruzado and a security-focused research group at the Fluminense Federal University. They control one quarter of neighborhoods in the city of Rio, amounting to more than half its territory, the study found.

In December, one of Rio's top militia leaders surrendered after negotiations with local authorities. Luiz Antônio da Silva Braga, better known as Zinho, had 12 arrest warrants issued against him, federal police said.

Gov. Castro called Zinho “Rio’s number one enemy” and celebrated his police forces for the arrest.