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

Last Updated: June 19, 2024By

Unveiling the Shadows: Inside Rio’s Underworld


The shrill ring of Rafael Soares’s phone sent shivers down his spine. “Hey, dude, guess what? Ronnie Lessa looked you up,” came the unsettling voice from the other end of the line, a contact from the federal police, as Soares stood in his cluttered newsroom one ordinary morning back in 2019.

For any Rio crime junkie worth their salt, being on the radar of a guy like Lessa spelled serious trouble. Word on the street was that Lessa wasn’t your run-of-the-mill tough guy – he was the kind who’d make your nightmares have nightmares. Lessa, a former cop turned hitman extraordinaire, had quite the rap sheet, allegedly bankrolled by a speedboat named after some fancy gun.

They called him “Perneta,” one leg, after he lost a limb in a bomb blast. A real-life Terminator, some said.


“When I heard that, man, my blood went cold. I mean, seriously, my hands turned to ice,” Soares recalled, the memory still sending chills down his spine. “I didn’t breathe a word to anyone. Not my mom, not my missus. No one.”

But despite the terror gnawing at him, the gutsy 33-year-old journo decided Lessa’s story – and the dark world he inhabited – needed airing. So Soares embarked on a wild ride to uncover the truth behind the hitman who Googled his name, delving into the seedy underbelly of Rio’s crime scene and its unholy alliance with corrupt cops.

His hair-raising discoveries are laid bare in “Milicianos,” a gritty new book peeling back the layers of Rio’s mafia-riddled underbelly.


While Rio’s favela turf wars have been grist for the mill in literature and cinema, with movies like “City of God” and “Elite Squad,” never before has the spotlight pierced the darkness surrounding the likes of Lessa: rogue cops-turned-hired guns, brutal paramilitary gangs, and a powerful cadre of gambling kingpins with political clout.

Recent years have seen a deluge of exposés, podcasts, and documentaries delving into this shadowy nexus, painting a chilling portrait of Brazil’s crown jewel.

Soares pins the surge in interest back to March 2018, when Rio-born politico Marielle Franco was gunned down in cold blood – a hit Lessa, 53, later confessed to. Franco’s murder pulled back the curtain on Lessa’s sinister double life, sparking a web of investigations that laid bare the rot festering within Rio’s law enforcement and society.


“Had it not been for Marielle, none of us would have cracked open the lid on this Pandora’s box,” Soares reflected, his eyes fixed on a distant memory. “It was a wake-up call to dig deeper, to see what lurked beneath the surface.”

And dig deeper they did, unearthing a rogues’ gallery of characters straight out of a Tarantino flick. Amidst corrupt cops with monikers like Batman and Robin, two men’s tales stand out.

There’s Lessa, the inked-up ex-beach bum turned cop who traded sun-soaked days for a career terrorizing Rio’s slums with a tactical squad straight out of a video game. And then there’s Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, a former elite soldier turned mob boss with a taste for bloodsports – whether it was hunting critters or humans.


But it wasn’t just street thugs and renegade cops; these guys had connections. Nóbrega allegedly ran his own hit squad from a bakery, for crying out loud, while hobnobbing with Brazil’s political elite.

The recent probes have uncovered a chilling truth: these guys aren’t lone wolves – they’re part of the system. Soares kicks off his book with a damning quote from a jailed mobster, laying bare the rot within Rio’s police force.

“If I spill the beans, Rio’s toast. They’ll need to hit the reset button on the entire police force,” the mobster’s words echo through the corridors of power.

And the recent arrests only underscore what Soares and his ilk have been shouting from the rooftops for years: in Rio, crime, cops, and politicians play the same dirty game.

Yet amidst the chaos, there’s a glimmer of hope. Soares, who doubles as a podcaster, knows the dangers that come with lifting the lid on Rio’s underbelly. But his love for his city drives him on.

“My roots are here in Rio, man. I ain’t bailing. I want to make this place better, one story at a time,” Soares declared, his eyes blazing with determination.

But as he admits, they’ve only scratched the surface. “We’ve illuminated a corner of the abyss, but most of it remains shrouded in darkness.”

So, the quest continues, one gritty tale at a time.

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