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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Judge Patricia Acioli was known for wielding a "heavy hammer," especially against rogue police who have formed illegal vigilante gangs. She had put more than 60 officers behind bars, most of them for murder.
The Rio de Janeiro state judge paid for that fearlessness: Acioli was shot to death in front of her house last month. And all of the 21 bullets that hit her came from a lot issued to police, including some in Sao Goncalo, the city where she worked.
While violence and impunity are common in Brazil, the brazen murder of Acioli was an especially heavy blow, a message of intimidation from the vigilante militias.
The slaying was "a wound to the lawful state, to democracy; the figure of the judge is a symbol of justice," said Denise Frossard, a retired judge who presided over some of Rio's first cases against the militias in the 1990s. "If she is a judge and can be killed, how can a citizen feel secure enough to be a witness?"
Acioli's death was the first murder of a judge in the state's history, though Frossard herself survived three assassination attempts and had eight security guards ensuring her safety while she was on the bench.
Violent militias have grown in power and scope in recent years, taking over poor communities formerly controlled by drug dealers and coercing residents to pay for illegal utility hookups, transportation, and security. Their members include former and current police, firefighters and jail guards. Investigators say they have elected members as state and city legislators. They also have been praised by politicians, including Rio de Janeiro's mayor, for taking back swaths of territory from drug gangs.
A probe by the state legislature in 2008 found militias were connected to execution-style killings, far-reaching extortion schemes, and the kidnapping and torture of a group of journalists investigating the gangs' activities.
Acioli had been repeatedly threatened for taking on the police officers who were part of the gangs, and she had written letters to her superiors requesting protection. One week before her murder, she went to Rio police's internal affairs office and said she was being threatened by officers from Sao Goncalo, where she worked, and Niteroi, where she lived.
The last case on her docket on Aug. 11, the day she died, involved policemen charged with executing an 18-year-old man in a slum. One of her last acts as a judge was to authorize their arrest.
A month later, three of the same Sao Goncalo police officers were charged with her murder.
The suspects knew the judge would ask for their arrest, and wanted to stop her, said Felipe Ettore, the head of Rio's homicide division, in a press conference this week. They didn't know she'd already issued the order.
"Their way of stopping her was to kill her," Ettore said. "They went to court and followed Patricia to her front door."
Nationwide, the lives of 134 judges are currently under threat, according to the National Council for Justice, which oversees the judiciary branch in Brazil. Requests for protection from magistrates jumped 400 percent in the month since Acioli's death, according to the Brazilian Association of Judges.
The killing prompted the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, to urge Brazilian authorities to protect those charged with enforcing the law.
"The assassination of Judge Acioli is evidence of the existence of a pervasive and serious problem regarding the protection of judges in Brazil," said Knaul, a Brazilian judge herself.
Acioli's caseload was taken on by three other judges. Seven prosecutors are now working with them.
"Her death did bring on a fear among prosecutors and judges; they're human, and it's natural to think, 'That could be me tomorrow,'" said Claudio Lopes, Rio state's attorney general. "But if this was done to intimidate justice, it is backfiring. We will be more rigorous than ever."
The work is not only dangerous, it's difficult. Militias infiltrate the state from local police departments to state legislatures. They have a particularly nefarious effect on the legal system because they blur the boundaries between legitimate agents of the law and criminals, Lopes said.
"They're often composed of people credentialed by the state to promote public safety, and they turn against the state, against the public," he said. "They usurp the authority of the state. In this way, they are a danger that goes deeper than drug traffickers."
Even a few years ago, some politicians still praised militias for doing what the state couldn't do: take on drug dealers entrenched in the city's shantytowns.
Former Rio Mayor Cesar Maia welcomed them as a "lesser evil" and a form of "community self-defense" against drug gangs, according to the newspaper O Globo in 2006.
Current Mayor Eduardo Paes praised militias in a July 2008 interview on Globo television, saying they "brought peace to the population" in areas where the state had lost sovereignty to drug lords.
Such views are changing as the body count rises. The 2008 investigation led by Marcelo Freixo, head of the state legislature's human rights commission, led to the arrest of one state representative and six city council members for militia activity. Hundreds were arrested on other charges because of information detailed in the report.
One of those arrested, Rio City Councilman Luiz Andre Ferreira da Silva, is accused of plotting to kill the city's police chief and Freixo.
In Sao Goncalo, 34 officers were put on leave after Acioli's death because they face serious criminal charges such as murder, according to Rio state's Supreme Court. Arrest warrants have been issued for 28 of them.
In spite of the threats to Acioli, court officials had cut her security detail from four to one in 2007, said Tecio Lins e Silva, an attorney representing her family.
"This is a matter involving my life, and it is very important," Acioli wrote in a letter appealing the decision. "I don't understand the treatment being given to the case."
But the security officers were not reinstated. At the moment she was shot, no one was there to protect her.