Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

BRAZIL: Effective Policies Needed to Fight Rising Murder Rates

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 21 2006 (IPS) - More than 800,000 people have been murdered in Brazil since 1980, and the annual figures continue to grow, but this tragedy with the dimensions of a full scale war has still not prompted the adoption of serious public safety policies by state and society.

The inertia can only be explained by an “absence of real interest by the authorities” in solving the problem, since technologies of proven effectiveness and resources to combat criminal violence both exist, concluded a study by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), a Ministry of Planning agency.

Homicides have declined somewhat in Sao Paulo in the present decade, and in Rio de Janeiro the rise in the murder rate has been curbed, using more police, equipment and operations against criminals, but “the improvement is more apparent than real,” Waldir Lobao, one of the three authors of the study, told IPS.

The “structural changes” that could effectively contain urban violence have not been made, public safety has not been given the priority it deserves by the state, without a thoroughgoing reform the prison system provides “a feedback loop to criminality,” and the criminal justice system “rewards those who steal and kill, with impunity,” he said.

There is also a lack of social inclusion policies aimed at reducing the enormous gap between the rich and poor in Brazil, Lobao added. Furthermore, the police are still divided between civilian and military branches, which should be brought together, and their links with the communities, that now feel nothing but fear towards them, must be restored, with the help of “intelligent policies” and a reliable information system, he said.

The IPEA study points out that there were 13,877 homicides in Brazil in 1980, a murder rate of 11.7 per 100,000 population, according to Health Ministry figures. By 2002, the total had climbed to 49,587, raising the murder rate to 28.5 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world.

During the 1980-2002 period, the murder rate grew by an average of 5.6 percent a year, so it was not a sudden explosion but rather a “predictable tragedy” that advanced with “frightening statistical regularity,” said Lobao. Crime, as measured by homicides, has gotten worse particularly in the metropolitan areas of the southeast, the country’s richest region.

The political rhetoric in response to the problem actually hinders solutions, by creating “myths” such as a lack of resources, of a “tough police force,” or of economic growth to justify “endemic” violence, says the study, which identifies five “key” factors that contribute to the “runaway crime rates.”

The expansion of the urban population, which grew from 52 million to 138 million between 1970 and 2000, the proliferation of firearms, and shortcomings in the criminal justice system are some of the causes named.

But the most influential factors are income inequality and the crumbling of public safety policies, promoted by the social sectors that control most of the national income and use the security forces to maintain their own privileges and power, according to the researchers.

However, statistics for the state of Sao Paulo show quite the opposite trend. Violent deaths tripled in two decades, rising from 12.8 per 100,000 population in 1980 to 43.2 per 100,000 in 1999, according to the State Data Analysis System (SEADE). But in 2000 they began to decline, to 35.8 per 100,000 in 2003. In absolute numbers, deaths dropped from 11,455 in 1999 to 8,989 in 2003.

The Public Safety Secretariat, which publishes quarterly figures, confirmed that the declining trend in violent crime continued up to the first quarter of this year. Since 1999, there has been a 60 percent reduction in homicides, a category that excludes involuntary manslaughter.

This is apparently encouraging, but apart from the questionability of accepting data from those who are themselves responsible for public safety, there was a turnaround last month. From May 12 to 20, 492 people were gunned down in the state of Sao Paulo, the result of an offensive by the First Commando of the Capital (PCC), a powerful prison gang, which killed 41 police, and of the violent police response.

There is no way of predicting future trends, because “the underlying factors remain in place,” said Guaracy Mingardi, a researcher with the Brazil section of the United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (ILANUD).

The fall in the murder rate in Sao Paulo state in the last few years can be attributed to several factors, such as an increase in the number of police on the streets, and a disarmament campaign which collected 150,000 weapons in the hands of civilians. But there was no “qualitative” improvement in policing, Mingardi, who said he has been “a criminologist for 20 years,” told IPS. Some municipalities created their own security guard corps.

Other factors include the ageing of the population, which has reduced the proportion of young people, who are the most likely to kill and be killed; a fall in the consumption of crack cocaine; and local programmes that have been successful in lowering crime rates in particular cities or neighbourhoods.

Diadema, a suburb of Sao Paulo, for example, cut its record 1999 murder rate by nearly half, by closing bars earlier and implementing social projects. Similar successes were achieved in some of the most violent Sao Paulo districts, through community education and social inclusion initiatives.

Changes in crime rates over time “depend on the local geography and public safety policies,” Mingardi said. In Rio de Janeiro, organised crime based on drug trafficking predominates, and is “harder to control,” but cases of kidnapping have been successfully controlled there, whereas in Sao Paulo they are still numerous, he said.

The police cannot fight all kinds of crime simultaneously: they have to set priorities, and under these circumstances it will not be possible to curb all criminal violence until more effective policies are adopted, he concluded.

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