Data journalism shows the private security of Rio de Janeiro in the hands of police officers and security agents

By Breno Costa, Reinaldo Chaves and Hyury Potter

In the third most populous state of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro’s security system is in a parallel universe. This is what was shown by the first survey of its kind investigating private security companies in Rio de Janeiro and the main neighbouring municipalities.

The work was published in an article for The Intercept Brazil in July 2018 and shows that one in four of these security and surveillance companies belong to security agents, almost half of them are active. They are commanders of strategic battalions of the Military Police and famous delegates to militiamen, corrupt policemen, torturers, and renowned politicians.

There are at least 162 security companies, out of a total of 638, registered in the name of 188 military police officers, civilian police, federal, penitentiary agents, firefighters, and even members of the Armed Forces. 128 of these are found in the capital. Some, in an apparent effort of concealment, are in the name of close relatives, such as the mother or the wife.

Image from the original file fixed-width text file – huge and difficult understanding

This research, which took several months, was conducted by journalists Breno Costa, Reinaldo Chaves and Hyury Potter, who are all part of Brio’s initiative for journalists.

It all started with the analysis of data released by the Brazilian Internal Revenue Service in December 2017. The federal agency released a list of 8.9 million Brazilian companies and their 17.6 million members. But these files were released in fixed-width text file format, which made finding information extremely difficult.

It was necessary to write a code in Python to read files and turn them into dataframes to be searchable. From this, we were able to search companies for keywords that refer to ‘private security’ and only in the State of Rio de Janeiro. The first cut found 1,641 companies.

Part of the Python code that turns the huge file into a dataframe for searches

After this, we began joint research using a Google Sheets spreadsheet. Each company was cross-referenced against the databases of the Federal Police, State Government of Rio de Janeiro, other bases of the Internal Revenue Service and recent police news to find active companies owned by security agents such as police officers, military and civil servants, as well as former secretaries of public security.

Part of this work was manual research and reading, and part was automated with Python, such as pandas and tabula libraries, to read large databases or turn PDF files into dataframes. The codes are in a git.

Part of the code in pandas to study the dataframe

With this, the investigation was able to measure, for the first time, the size of potential clandestinity in this sector. Of the 638 security companies active in the Federal Revenue, only 126 are authorised by the Federal Police to operate, according to data for March this year informed by the institution for reporting.

Without the stamp of the Federal Police – which requires the description of the uniforms of the guards, photographs of the uniformed professionals, as well as images of the facades and arms deposits – these security companies (representing 80% of the total) can not have armed personnel or charge for security services.

Article still brings photos of some business addresses – many sites work without structure and not characterized at entry as security companies

This large investigation of data also led to the investigation of other issues such as diversion of ammunition in security companies, participation of politicians in the control of these companies and the participation of armed militias in their operation. We have also published a second article, on July 23, about security consultancies in the hands of former public servants who have privileged information from their sector.