By Zoë Roller, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Rua Uruguaiana in Centro is known to Cariocas and savvy tourists as one of Rio’s best bargain shopping destinations. The popular market, a labyrinth of tiny stalls selling electronics, clothing, and media, has recently become a target of investigation into militia extortion, counterfeiting and even illegal immigration.
It was created in 1994 to provide street vendors in Centro with more formal commercial spaces. Vendors at Uruguaiana often come into conflict with the Prefeitura and the police over the legality of their merchandise and legitimacy of their businesses.
On September 16th, the Municipal Guard’s intelligence sector launched an investigation of a militia operating in Uruguaiana. The group allegedly helps unlicensed foreign vendors avoid arrest, guarantees space in the market, and distributes merchandise.
The investigation will gather information on which vendors are foreign, where they sleep, and where they get their products. Results will be released in a month. Secretary of Public Order (Seop) Alex Costa said, “We know there is a militia-type group that protects vendors. But we still don’t know who these people are, or whether they’re working with the police.”
The investigation was also prompted by a confrontation between the Municipal Guard and street vendors in Uruguaiana on September 3rd, in which several people were wounded. Bystanders say the vendors were provoked by the police officers’ overly combative attitude. Colonel Lima Castro, commander of the Guard, says one offending officer was removed from the unit for “losing control of his emotions.”
Costa also proposed a joint operation of the Civil and Federal Police to combat illegal immigration and the selling of counterfeit and contraband goods, although the connection between the offenses is largely circumstantial.
Suspicions were raised when large numbers of foreigners selling similar goods were noticed during a survey of the area for the Shock of Order (Choque de Ordem) program. According to Seop, the majority of foreign vendors in Uruguaiana are Peruvian and Ecuadorian, but it is unclear what percentage of this group are in the country illegally or involved in illegal activities.
“There are crimes like contraband goods and piracy, as well as illegal immigration. There could be a larger pattern,” said Costa. “They’re foreigners. How did they get to Rio?”
On the first day of the militia investigation, police arrested nine Ecuadorians for selling counterfeit goods in Uruguaiana. They said that they came to Brazil legally, looking for work, and denied any involvement with a militia.
The group sold shirts for R$10 that they bought for R$8 from another vendor in Uruguaiana. The Ecuadorians were charged with trademark violation and if convicted, they could receive up to two years in prison.
Counterfeit goods are a widespread problem in Rio. In the past few months the Delegation for the Repression of Immaterial Property Crimes (Delegacia de Repressão aos Crimes contra Propriedade Imaterial, or DRCPIM) has arrested Chinese vendors selling medications and jewelry in Vila Isabel, and Ecuadorians selling shirts in Jacarepaguá. Copacabana and Largo do Machado are also hotbeds of piracy.
Valéria Aragão, a delegate of DRCPIM, said “The authorities will not tolerate pirated goods in a space as big as Uruguaiana.” However, attempts to drive out illegal commerce will face serious challenges as long as the informal sector offers attractive employment opportunities. According to Aragão, the pirate goods market employs two million people in Brazil, and is worth twice as much as the drug trade worldwide.
Uruguaiana poses a considerable obstacle to Shock of Order, the zero-tolerance public order program that was installed in Centro two weeks ago. Costa decided to not include the market in the initial area, because informal commerce is so entrenched there, stating that it will not receive a UOP for at least six months.