People stand near cables in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 10, 2022. (REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes)
As the people of Rio de Janeiro sheltered at home last year during Brazil's COVID-19 outbreak, a police official found something unusual about a local internet service.
The internet was suddenly unavailable across one poor neighborhood. Detective Gabriel Ferrando later found that armed men had chased away a technician from internet service provider TIM SA.
A new internet provider had claimed the area. It was a company that officials believe has ties to drug dealers and arms sellers. It also is believed to have links to Brazil’s criminal organization, the Red Command. Those living in the area could get internet from the new company – or do without it.
TIM later released a statement asking the country’s law enforcement to protect established internet companies.
Ferrando continued to investigate and, in a report after months of work, he asked government lawyers to take action. But, so far, officials have done nothing.
Reuters continued the investigation and found that internet service in many neighborhoods in Brazil’s major cities has been taken over by suspected criminals. They reportedly are not afraid to use threats and violence to control internet service.
Now, tens of thousands of Brazilians have poor-quality internet service that makes millions of dollars for suspected criminals. Customers report they sometimes face someone at their door with a demand for the monthly payment.
There's "pressure to pay on the day that they choose with no delay," said one customer, who did not want his name used.
In 2020, Brazilian households with an internet connection grew by more than 12 percentage points to 83 percent. That is the most recent information available from Cetic.br, an information technology organization.
But criminals, also called pirates, are stealing equipment from real providers to create their internet services. Feninfra, an industry group, said robbery and destruction of telecommunications equipment rose 34 percent in 2020 from 2019. That is equal to about $194 million in yearly losses.
Brazil has criminal groups that control water and electricity services, but now they are entering the business of technology.
This is how they do it.
First, they steal or damage equipment belonging to traditional internet service providers. When repair teams arrive, they are chased away by armed men who warn them not to come back. These so-called no-go areas have increased by 300 percent since 2019. Without competition, the criminals can charge a lot of money for poor-quality service.
Often, the criminals will get help from a corrupt worker at one of the big internet companies, said Rio de Janeiro state prosecutor Antonio Pessanha. In one recent case, an employee of internet provider Claro, offered to sell company equipment to organized criminals, Pessanha said. His office recorded the criminals’ telephone discussions by getting a court order.
In the Morro da Formiga neighborhood, detective Ferrando said he began receiving information in the first half of 2021. It was from people who said internet services had stopped working. The company that controlled the area, JPConnect, was established in 2019. Reuters examined its public documents.
Those records show that until late last year JPConnect was part-owned by Paulo Cesar Souza dos Santos Jr. Officials said he is a member of Red Command.
In January, police officers searched JPConnect's headquarters in Morro da Formiga. Ferrando said they found stolen equipment belonging to large technology companies.
Marcos Ferrari is the head of the Brazilian telecommunications trade association Conexis. He said the industry in Brazil faces robbery, destruction of property, and threats to employees.
Officials must "inhibit this type of criminal action," Ferrari said.
In Rio de Janeiro there are several other internet providers under investigation for links to criminals, officials said.
The provider Net&Com was raided by police in March 2021. Police have publicly stated that they are investigating the firm. They suspect it is paying criminals with the Red Command to help them take over internet services in poor neighborhoods throughout the Rio de Janeiro area.
Pessanha, the state prosecutor, said the investigation continues.
"The new gold for the criminal underworld," he said, "is the internet."
Words in This Story
technician –n. a person whose job relates to the practical use of machines or science in industry, medicine
customer –n. someone who buys goods or services from a business
household –n. the people in a family or other group that are living together in one house
inhibit –v. to keep (someone) from doing what he or she wants to do