When Firefighters Go Bad

(Photo: Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil)

By Jay Fisher

Disclaimer: This article is meant to highlight a corruption problem affecting a small but measurable segment of the Brazilian fire service. Although there is undoubtedly some measure of corruption among Brazilian firefighters, it is no way meant to indict or accuse all members of that nation’s fire services. There are many, many men and women who serve with distinction and honor. However, the lessons that can be learned from the small but measurable corruption problem affecting Brazil’s fire services provide important lessons for managers and chiefs to study.

Firefighters in the United States have a really good situation. A 2011 Forbes article indicated that eighty percent of firefighters are “very satisfied” with their jobs. [1] A 2001 Gallup poll showed that the American public had either “high” or “very high” trust and honesty perceptions in firefighters. [2] Ask any firefighter, and anecdotal evidence will reveal that the public views this occupation with admiration and respect. It is indeed rare to find a profession with such an elevated level of happiness among its members that is held in high esteem by the greater society.

However, such dual, sky-high ratings of firefighting are not a world-wide phenomenon. For example, the famous “White Helmets” rescue specialists of Syria are held in high regard by people around the globe for the valiant work they do with limited resources; however, they suffer from massive stress and trauma-fatigue, and volunteer their services without compensation. Certainly their work is essential, but it is hard to imagine that job satisfaction can be high under such conditions.

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An even more interesting organization to study for job satisfaction is the fire service in Brazil. It has been chronically plagued by low wages, which leads to a measurable level of corruption among some members. This article focuses on that corruption and, more specifically, a rather small but extreme evolution of it – death squad activity carried out by firefighters. The lessons that can be learned by studying Brazil’s fire services organization and history can provide important lessons for fire services everywhere to avoid corruption and potential loss of respect in the greater society in which their departments operate.


Brazil has a history stretching back 10,000 years with settlement by indigenous tribes and subsequent colonization by the Portuguese in 1500. [3] The country eventually separated from Portugal and became an independent nation. Interesting points in Brazil’s early history include that it was one of only three places in the Western Hemisphere to have its own domestically-created monarchy (from 1822 to 1889) [4]; it was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery (in 1888) [5]; and Brazil was one of the combatants in the largest war in South American history – the War of the Triple Alliance (1864 to 1870), which killed an estimated 70 percent of the adult male population of Paraguay. [6] In its formative years, Brazil also set up its (very confusing to North American observers) police system: the “military police” provide everyday police services and answer calls for assistance from the public, while the “civil police” provide investigative/detective services and act as a liaison with prosecutors. [7]

However, the event that would have the greatest effect on modern Brazil – and would help shape the corruption that plagues the nation currently – was the nation’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. During that time, dissent was violently suppressed, political opponents were either murdered or simply “disappeared,” and the police and armed services of the country behaved recklessly and with impunity. Indeed, Brazil’s current culture of violence which has received global media coverage, can be traced directly to this era.

Because the government, armed services and police could behave without accountability, the fire services were allowed to act similarly. Unbeknownst to most North Americans, the majority of Brazil’s firefighting services are branches of both the police and military. There are two branches to the firefighting services in Brazil – the “Corpo de Bombeiros Militar” (CBM), who are paid firefighters in the cities and towns in each of Brazil’s states, and the “Corpo de Bombeiros Voluntários,” who are volunteer firefighters in remote locations where the state government has not yet established a CBM. [8] Since 1915, the CBM has been a reserve component of the military police and an auxiliary arm of the Brazilian Army. [9]


The most profound problem plaguing Brazil’s modern fire service is the low pay among firefighting staff. In 2011, firefighters in Rio de Janeiro reported an average monthly salary of R$950, which translates into roughly $290.00 in U.S. dollars. [10] By comparison, the minimum wage in Brazil is R$545. [11] The problem was so significant that in 2016, when Rio hosted the summer Olympics, visitors were greeted at the international airport by police holding signs saying “Welcome to hell – police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.” [12] By February 2018, however, the Rio state legislature had provided for firefighters to receive a raise to R$1,325.31 per month, which converts to $343.06 United States dollars. [13]

Another problem affecting Brazil’s fire service is the availability of firearms among its members and the lack of training in their proper use. Brazil is characterized by legal experts as having restrictive national gun control laws. [14] Generally speaking, Brazilians are prevented from carrying firearms unless they are law enforcement officers. [15] Because Brazilian firefighters are part of the military, they can carry firearms [16]; however, they receive no training in their usage. [17] One survey showed that half of Rio de Janeiro’s active and inactive firefighters carry weapons. [18]

Finally, Brazil’s fire service is adversely affected by the greater societal violence within which it exists. The sheer scope and pervasiveness of drug gangs in Brazil is legendary. Along with these gangs has come firearms violence. A 2016 survey by the Center for Public Security and Criminal Justice found that out of the 50 cities around the world with the highest gunshot homicide rates, a whopping 22 of them were located in Brazil. [19] Furthering this problem is the generally held perception that the country’s numerous police forces are corrupt. [20] Justifiably, Brazilians feel unsafe in this climate. A 2017 survey of Rio de Janeiro residents found that 90 percent of them feel unsafe at night, and 72 percent of them would move if they had the ability to do so. [21]


The low pay among armed public safety workers (including firefighters) has reportedly inspired them to moonlight within militias or vigilante gangs in Brazil’s urban areas. According to The New York Times: “The militias have filled a vacuum of authority by promising residents security in exchange for payments and the chance to take over many illegal businesses — including controlling the supply of water and natural gas, running gambling machines, pirating cable television connections, and of course, the drug trade.” [22] Multiple reports cite that Brazilian citizens view the militias as a “lesser evil” than drug gangs. Although, the militias engage in their own forms of criminality, they battle the drug lords, earning them the respect of locals affected by narcotics and violence. [23]

However, militias have also frequently engaged in their own extreme criminal conduct and have been linked to thousands of extra-judicial killings across Brazil. Death squads have been employed by both land owners and business operators to rid areas of “undesirable elements.” [24] Some of these militias/death squads have taken on “legendary” status, brazenly operating in the open within their respective cities. For example, one that operates in Rio de Janeiro called “Scuderie Le Cocq” even mints its own trinkets and shirts for members (see photo).

A keychain made by the militia / death squad Scuderie Le Cocq

A keychain made by the militia/death squad Scuderie Le Cocq. Photo by author.

The reader may be struck incredulous that Brazilian firefighters could engage in death squad activity. However, that is exactly what multiple sources report – using their ability to carry firearms and taking advantage of people who would rather deal with corrupt public servants than drug dealers, some firefighters have reportedly teamed up with police to form militias and carry out murders for personal gain. One report from O Globo newspaper reported that, in 2007, 196 firefighters were implicated in militia activity. [25] The Rio state police internal affairs unit that same year had 205 legal investigations going, of which 13 involved firefighters. [26] A past leader of the death squad Scuderie Le Cocq in the state of Espirito Santo, Elvio Sílvio Rebouças, was a former fire department commander in the same jurisdiction. [27]

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And what has militia/death squad activity earned for its members? One study concluded that militia members earned on average an extra $300 to $1,700 per week. [28] Although North American firefighters may look down at these sums as paltry earnings for extreme conduct, the prospect of earning many times over the average firefighter’s monthly salary must be very enticing in the Third World.


Some of the problems associated with firefighters’ involvement in militias are obvious and have been briefly mentioned above. The mere nature of their criminal acts (murder, extortion, assault, etc.) brings the individual militia members’ conduct under investigation and opens them to possible prosecution. This has led to multiple firefighters being terminated from the service for involvement in criminal activity. [29]

Even more profound are the very public images of Brazilian firefighters being incarcerated for their bad activity. In 2009, Rio firefighter and politician Cristiano Girão Matias was arrested for involvement in gang formation, extortion and money laundering, and was subsequently imprisoned. [30] Former firefighter Wallace Castro was arrested in 2016 for his involvement in militia activity; he was later murdered in an incident in 2017 along with ex-military police officer Marcos Vinícius Borges Santana. [31]

The militia’s criminal activity creates a culture where the organization attempts to protect itself, and has no fear of using violence to do so. One community leader who denounced militia extortion was allegedly beaten by eight firefighters in 2017 and was later found dead. [32] In a notorious trial in 2006, militia members Alex Fernandes de Barros, Alexandre Alves da Silva, João de Souza Pinheiro, and Reginaldo Rocha de Souza were convicted of murder of Acre State firefighter Sebastião Crispim da Silva in 1997 in the city of Rio Branco. [33] Crispim da Silva had been a member of an area militia but had left the gang and was planning to testify to a commission looking into the organization’s activities. [34]

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Finally, the militias are corrupting how Brazil’s democracy functions. Numerous investigations have already targeted how the militias directly influence politicians in races or even try running their own candidates for offices. [35] If the militias cannot influence the candidates, they will also engage in political murder to achieve their goals. [36] Anecdotal evidence reveals firefighter involvement in these crimes. Earlier in this article, the author mentioned Elvio Sílvio Rebouças (a firefighter who led a branch of the Scuderie Le Cocq death squad). He had well-established ties with a politician named José Carlos Gratz, who was also identified by media as having links to narcotraffickers. [37]


The differences between Brazil and the United States are vast and many, but there are still numerous lessons we can learn from corruption within Brazil’s fire service that should affect how the industry operates in North America:

There should be a firm and permanent barrier between the fire and police services. It is obvious that many of the Brazilian fire service’s problems arise from the integration of its organization within the military police. The proliferation of firearms among its members without instruction in their proper usage and the fact that fire service workers operate so closely with (frequently corrupt) police officers make them prime candidates for recruitment into militias. Separating the fire from the police functions would be an effective first start to address this corruption. Indeed, this has already been suggested. In 2007, Rio de Janeiro governor Sergio Cabral started taking such measures by moving the firefighters from the department of public safety to the health department. This was done, in part, to create a firmer barrier between the fire service and the military police, effectively removing the firefighters’ ability to carry weapons. However, it should be noted that Rio firefighters and their political allies have been lobbying against the move since it was made. [38] Although United States police departments have nowhere near the same levels of corruption as their Brazilian counterparts, stories arise about American “crooked cops” from time to time. The lure of “dirty money” to look the other way regarding criminal behavior can be a powerful influence. American fire departments would be wise to keep a firm organizational barrier between their functions and those of the police.

Better pay for firefighters. Brazilian paid firefighting staff chronically complain about the low wages among their workers. This fuels not only militia corruption, but other scams as well. In September 2017, 32 Rio firefighters were arrested for accepting bribes from commercial business owners to avoid necessary operating licenses for which the fire service was the responsible issuing agency. [39] The paltry monthly salaries are widely seen as ineffectual to maintain a proper standard of living. Because of this, some observers might characterize corrupt Brazilian firefighters as “militia members first, firefighters second.” To avoid similar confused allegiances, American politicians and fire chiefs should conduct regular salary surveys to make sure their paid staff have a comfortable standard of living and avoid the draw of secondary jobs (whether legitimate or illegitimate), which could affect their loyalty to the department.

Proper accountability and enforcement of standards. Notice here that the author did not say “knowledge of conduct rules.” There is no doubt that Brazilian firefighters know the rules of conduct – they have fire academies where such subjects are taught. Instead, what Brazil lacks is effective enforcement mechanisms for conduct standards. There is a general understanding in Brazilian society that all government is basically corrupt and lacks effective mechanisms to fight wrongdoing; the nation was rocked in 2014 and 2015 by massive public protests against this very perception. Despite recent efforts to address the subject, Brazil still ranked 79th out of 176 countries in the 2017 worldwide corruption rating by Transparency International. [40] These negative perceptions are no doubt driven by the view that corrupt public officials (firefighters included) “get away with it.” Fire department leaders should have efficient mechanisms in place to investigate any allegations of misbehavior by staff, and the investigative process should not only be thorough but also perceived as fair to witnesses, the accused and any potential accuser(s).

There was a study released in 2014 by the German research institute GFK Verein which said that Brazilians had the greatest confidence and trust in firefighters among 25 professions surveyed. [41] The trust held in fire personnel was greater than that of teachers (81 percent), nurses (72 percent), and even farmers (55 percent). [42] This suggests that, despite whatever problems the Brazilian fire services may suffer from, it still possesses a vast wealth of goodwill from society that should be protected at all costs.

It should go without saying, but bad behavior among firefighters is not unique to Brazil. One need only do a quick Internet search to find the unfortunate reality of destructive and even criminal behavior among the ranks both in the U.S. and elsewhere. It is hoped that studying the unique cultural aspects of some instances of corruption in Brazil can lead to lessons learned for fire service leaders.

Bad professional behavior by firefighters – whether it is minor bribe-taking on business licenses or death squad activity by militias – undoubtedly impacts the reputation of the Brazilian fire service in a negative fashion. Every member implicated in such conduct implicates the thousands of other firefighters who honestly and forthrightly go about their duties with honor. By studying the organizational weaknesses that create such bad conduct, North American fire leaders can identify the potential pitfalls that may lead their own staff astray and can take corrective actions in advance of any such problems arising.

Jay FisherJay Fisher is a volunteer firefighter/paramedic with the Rattlesnake and Kiowa Fire Protection Districts in Elbert County, Colorado. He has an undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, a masters degree in public administration from the University of North Dakota, and a juris doctorate (law) degree from Georgia State University. You can contact the author at jay.fisher@rattlesnakefirerescue.com.



[1] Steve Denning, “The Ten Happiest Jobs”, Forbes Magazine, Sep. 12, 2011; https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/09/12/the-ten-happiest-jobs/#30dd70437703

[2] David W. Moore, “Firefighters Top Gallup’s ‘Honesty and Ethics’ List”, Gallup News, Dec. 5, 2001; http://news.gallup.com/poll/5095/firefighters-top-gallups-honesty-ethics-list.aspx

[3] Robert M. Levine; John J. Crocitti (1999). The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press; Jorge Coutu, A Construção do Brasil, Edições Cosmos, 2ª Ed., Lisboa, Portugal, 1997.

[4] Hélio Viana (1994). História do Brasil: período colonial, monarquia e república (15th ed.). São Paulo.

[5] Laird W. Bergad (2007). The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Diego Abente (1987). “The War of the Triple Alliance”. Latin American Research Review.

[7] Rebeca Duran, “Branches of the Police in Brazil”, The Brazil Business, Oct. 15, 2013; http://thebrazilbusiness.com/article/branches-of-the-police-in-brazil

[8] “What differentiates the military police from civil police in Brazil?”; https://www.quora.com/What-differentiates-the-military-police-from-civil-police-in-Brazil

[9] Federal Law of Brazil 3.216, Article 7, of January 3, 1917

[10] Stone Korshak, “Bombeiros in Brazil”, The Rio Times, Jun. 7, 2011; http://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/opinion-editorial/editorial/bombeiros/

[11] Id.

[12] Feliks Garcia, “Brazilian police greet tourists with ‘Welcome to Hell’ sign at Rio airport,” The Independent, June 28, 2016; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/brazil-rio-police-welcome-to-hell-tourists-olympics-a7108091.html

[13] “Alerj aprova piso salarial com 5% de reajuste para profissionais da iniciativa privada” by G1 Rio, Feb. 8, 2018; https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/alerj-aprova-piso-salarial-com-5-de-reajuste-para-profissionais-da-iniciativa-privada.ghtml

[14] “Brazil — Gun Facts, Figures and the Law”; http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/brazil

[15] LEI No 10.826, DE 22 DE DEZEMBRO DE 2003. December 22, 2003.

[16] Julia Michaels, “Rio Real: How Firemen, Militias and Politicians Mix in Brazil,” InSight Crime, June 14, 2011; https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/rio-real-why-firemens-pay-could-fund-militias/

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Kenneth Rapoza, “Brazil Is Murder Capital Of The World, But Rio Is Safer Than Compton, Detroit, St. Louis…,” Forbes, January 29, 2016; https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2016/01/29/months-before-rio-olympics-murder-rate-rises-in-brazil/#6a7fddf32790

[20] “Brazil Corruption Report” by GAN, https://www.business-anti-corruption.com/country-profiles/brazil

[21] Julia Barbon and Marina Estarque, “7 em 10 moradores do Rio querem deixar a cidade por causa da violência,” Fohla de Sao Paulo, July 10, 2017; http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2017/10/1925156-7-em-10-moradores-do-rio-quererem-deixar-a-cidade-por-causa-da-violencia.shtml

[22] Alexei Barrionuevo, “In Rio Slum, Armed Militia Replaces Drug Gang’s Criminality With Its Own,” New York Times, June 13, 2008; http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/world/americas/13brazil.html

[23] Id.

[24] U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Brazil Report, March 11, 2008; https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2007/100630.htm

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] “Espírito Santo tenta vencer o crime organizado,” Tribuna do Parana, August 2, 2003; http://www.tribunapr.com.br/noticias/brasil/espirito-santo-tenta-vencer-o-crime-organizado/

[28] “Deputado do Dem é preso como chefe de esquadrão da morte acusado de assassinar mais de 80 pessoas no RJ,” Hora do Povo, July 2008; http://www.horadopovo.com.br/2008/julho/2687-25-07-08/P4/pag4c.htm

[29] “Brazil lets go hundreds of rogue police,” Desert News, July 5, 2000; https://www.deseretnews.com/article/769944/Brazil-lets-go-hundreds-of-rogue-police.com

[30] “Ex-vereador Cristiano Girão retorna para a prisão no Rio de janeiro,” Superior Tribunal de Justiça; https://stj.jusbrasil.com.br/noticias/2243359/ex-vereador-cristiano-girao-retorna-para-a-prisao-no-rio-de-janeiro

[31] “Bombeiro preso por envolvimento com a milícia e policial militar são assassinados em Marechal Hermes,” Noticias R7, December 5, 2017; https://noticias.r7.com/rio-de-janeiro/bombeiro-preso-por-envolvimento-com-a-milicia-e-policial-militar-sao-assassinados-em-marechal-hermes-12052017

[32] Julinho Bittencourt, “Líder comunitário denunciou ter sido espancado por bombeiros uma semana antes de morrer,” Forum, January 5, 2018; https://www.revistaforum.com.br/lider-comunitario-denunciou-ter-sido-espancado-por-bombeiros-uma-semana-antes-de-morrer/

[33] “Integrantes do chamado “Esquadrão da Morte” têm HC negado pela Primeira Turma ,” Supremo Tribunal Federal; https://stf.jusbrasil.com.br/noticias/3111626/integrantes-do-chamado-esquadrao-da-morte-tem-hc-negado-pela-primeira-turm

[34] Id.

[35] “Influencia de Milicia e Trafico Nas Eleicoes 2018 Preocupa Governo e Judiciario FDN Ja Tentou Eleger Politicos No AM,” Portal do San Marcos, October 14, 2017; http://www.portalmarcossantos.com.br/2017/10/14/influencia-de-milicia-e-trafico-nas-eleicoes-2018-preocupa-governo-e-judiciario-fdn-ja-tentou-eleger-politicos-no-am/

[36] Fernanda Mena, “Assassinatos em série de políticos indicam uma ‘colombização’ no país,” Fohla de Sao Paulo, March 15, 2018; https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2018/03/assassinatos-em-serie-de-politicos-indicam-uma-colombizacao-no-pais.shtml

[37] “Espírito Santo tenta vencer o crime organizado,” Tribuna do Parana, August 2, 2003; http://www.tribunapr.com.br/noticias/brasil/espirito-santo-tenta-vencer-o-crime-organizado/

[38] Julia Michaels, “Rio Real: How Firemen, Militias and Politicians Mix in Brazil,” InSight Crime, June 14, 2011; https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/rio-real-why-firemens-pay-could-fund-militias/

[39] Fábio Grellet and Marcio Dolzan, “Operação prende 32 bombeiros do Rio por corrupção,” Estado, September 12, 2017; http://brasil.estadao.com.br/noticias/rio-de-janeiro,bombeiros-e-empresarios-envolvidos-em-venda-de-alvaras-sao-alvos-de-operacao-no-rio,70001988951

[40] http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/en/geral/noticia/2017-01/brazil-slips-international-corruption-ranking

[41] “Bombeiros Sao Os Profissionais Mais Confiaveis No Brasil Siz Pesquisa; Veja Lista,” Fohla de Sao Paulo, May 7, 2014; http://classificados.folha.uol.com.br/empregos/2014/05/1450649-bombeiros-sao-os-profissionais-mais-confiaveis-no-brasil-diz-pesquisa-veja-lista.shtml

[42] Id.


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