Civil War in Brazil Is No Figure of Speech

Have Brazilians stopped to reflect, as they should, over the crime figures in the 2003 Social Indicator Synthesis, recently announced by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics)? Or can it be that violence has so been incorporated in our daily lives to the extent of numbing our sensitivity?

The numbers demand our attention, because the reality may be even worse than what their dramatic individual experiences suggest.

In general, the figures refute or correct rhetorical exaggerations, such as the popular assertion that Brazil is experiencing a civil war in disguise. However, in this case the rhetoric is much closer to reality.

To apply the concept of civil war may be arguable, but the level of violence, the number of “casualties”, the insecurity, and the widespread fear amongst the population don’t fall very short to those of countries involved in such conflicts; or the quagmire Iraq is in.

In 20 years, from 1980 to 2000, no less than 600 thousand people were murdered in Brazil, an average of 30 thousand a year. A 130% increase in murder rates during this period. Comparably, to give an idea of the statistical significance, the civil war that devastated Angola for 27 years left 350 thousand dead.

Another example: in Brazil, in 2000, the death rate by firearms was 71.7 per 100 thousand people, 13 times greater than the US’s in the same period, 5.5 per 100 thousand.

The coordinator of the United Nations Development Program (Pnud) in Brazil, Carlos Lopes, based on data that he gathered which are very similar to IBGE’s, claims that 40 thousand people were murdered in the country in 2002.

“In a nation in peace, it’s difficult to conceive so much killing as a result of improper use of weapons. This number is higher than the number of dead in the war in Iraq, and it is rising. With 2.8% of the world’s population,” he adds, “we are accountable for 11% of homicides worldwide.”

All other facts from the IBGE report are equally unsettling, but two of them call for special attention. Of that total of 600 thousand murders, more than half -369.101 – took place in the 90s, which means that the problem is very rapidly worsening.

And the young are the most affected by the violence. In 2000, for example, 57.1% of male homicide deaths fall in the 15-24 year-old segment, which cuts down life expectancy of big cities’ residents, where crime rates are higher. Within that same age bracket, traffic accidents represent 18.3% of deaths.

Violence has reached such levels, that it is canceling off all major advancements in the nation’s public health, achieved with great effort.

“We managed to lower infant deaths so that now our youth get to die in a stupid manner” – that’s the melancholic and discouraging conclusion by sociologist Celso Simões, one of the coordinators of the IBGE report.

Facing such facts, if someone says that violence has turned into a national tragedy, he/she will not be engaging in any sort of exaggeration. What can be done to confront this situation?

Simões points out that economic and social factors – such as the lack of employment opportunities, education, health care, and the low income levels of needy citizens – can only be solved in the mid-long run.

What is possible and must be done immediately, while pursuing better living conditions for the population, is to seek more efficiency from the police force, particularly in the fight against organized crime.

Here, emphasis to narcotrafficking, and its non-stop growth in controlling important areas of big cities like Rio de Janeiro, and the expansion of its domain to the interior parts of the country as well. And in this undertaking, it is eye-catching that both – state and federal governments – have failed.

Among the most qualified people to suggest ways to reach that goal is Colonel José Vicente da Silva, former National Public Safety Secretary in the Cardoso administration and researcher at the Fernand Braudel Institute, one of Brazil’s greatest authorities concerning the issue.

Whenever government leaders want to display their efforts in the crime battle – compelled by the cry of the people against the surge in violence –, there they go to old security policies that prioritize the purchase of police vehicles and other equipments, as well as the increase – in this case, modest – in the numbers of military and civil police forces.

According to José Vicente da Silva, this notion of police, called “reactive policing”, is dated. He considers this option for equipments “to be seen” – reinforced by the disposition of parked police vehicles in heavy-traffic corners or squares – a marketing strategy: “After all, police vehicles are moving outdoor ads.”

In his opinion, the biggest mistakes in this obsolete police concept are:

1) the reaction speed doesn’t guarantee the arrest of criminals. Studies show that not even 3% of all cases result in arrests;

2) random patrol is a waste of time and resources, because crimes almost always take place in certain locations around the cities. Therefore, it is there that the police must act.

3) arresting as many law transgressors as possible does not improve our security, contrary to popular belief. Arrest, yes, but most importantly the more violent and repeating criminals, linked to criminal groups;

4) as to police force, it’s relevant to bring up that proportionately Brazil’s units are greater than those of developed countries, such as the US, England, and Japan.

To replace this “obsolete notion”, predominant in the country, Colonel José Vicente da Silva proposes a set of measures.

First on the list is government’s resolve, starting at the federal level, to place public safety at the top of the agenda, “and not focus on it only when violence moves from the last page of newspapers to the front.”

His opinion on the Joint System of Public Safety (Susp) is negative: “It is only a marketing display to show intention to do something different. It’s nothing new. I have never seen it work in my 41 years dealing with police matters, in all 22 states I have been. The states adhered to Susp only to have access to resources from the Public Safety National Fund.”

Other measures needed to be implemented are, in summary:

1) combine police forces, because the split into military and civil hinders the execution of coordinated and efficient efforts in both crime prevention and repression. “The idea of police ‘integration’, to put them to work in harmony, has never materialized and will never happen, except in certain occasions and times”;

2) put in place an extensive personnel program aimed at improving morale, compatible with the difficulties and demands of police work, through rigorous recruiting and training selection, opportunities for career advancement, health care, etc. “The police situation today is dramatic, with small salaries and lack of all forms of assistance;”

3) invest in intelligence procedures and structures, from databases in regional precincts to the coordination among these information bases. That is the best way to enable the police to gain knowledge of criminal practices and trends in each big city area, and based on this information take preemptive action in order to diminish the chances for crime and provide evidence for quick indictments of wrongdoers;

4) focus on moralizing the police force, through measures like decentralizing the system in internal affairs, extremely rigorous investigation of accusations, and quick punishments;

5) promote police-community interaction. “The population has something of great value that the police needs: information, raw-material for police work. Given open and receptive channels, the people will collaborate and support the police effort.”

The crime battle doesn’t stop, however, in police action, despite being a fundamental element, of course. Social and economic factors must be given consideration.

A simplistic and mechanical cause and effect relation between poverty and violence cannot be established – otherwise, where is the explanation to the existence of the latter in rich nations – especially the United States – in high doses?

Nonetheless, that precarious living conditions in the outskirts of big cities of countries like Brazil aggravate the violence issue appears to be unquestionable.

Aware of this problem, José Vicente da Silva claims that it is evident “that besides bad income distribution, people in the outskirts of big cities, where conditions deteriorated immensely in the last decades, suffer with the lack of attention from the state.

Particularly the youth segment, wherein the core of homicides lies. Poverty is literally being eliminated via the removal of 40 thousand needy people annually, mostly young, with the “help” of the state in fact – there were almost 2 thousand killings last year by Rio and São Paulo’s police alone, while all deaths by US police were 339 people in 2002.

Even though the overall improvement of socio-economic conditions for this portion of the population is a mid to long term job, as it was stated before, there are many important things that can and must be done in less time. José Vicente da Silva cites two examples.

The city of Diadema, in the metropolitan area of São Paulo, has lowered homicide rates by more than 50% in two years, by combining social and political actions.

In São José dos Campos, in the state of São Paulo, massive investments (day care centers, schools, road pavement, street lights, transportation, and housing) in violent neighborhoods and a city institution that looks after 6 thousand needy juveniles contributed decisively to the city’s homicide rate in 2003 staying below that of 1995.

He warns, however, that isolated efforts do not impact substantially the decrease in violence throughout critical areas. It’s essential to provide urban equipment and implement social programs and police actions in a coordinated fashion to make it successful, “as an X-ray beam aimed at a tumor”.

Another measure of tremendous value is “the restoration of order in depredated urban spaces. This is a powerful tool to cut down violence emulators, hence the success in the renovation of Recife’s historical center and the shorter hours of operation of night-clubs in cities like Diadema, Barueri, and Hortolândia, in the state of São Paulo.

The combination of depredated urban spaces and the absence or insufficient presence of the State creates an environment where ‘no one cares’ and ‘law means little or nothing’, which encourages anarchy and tolerance to crime, an example of such being the ‘street market’ of drugs that operates freely around Rio’s shantytowns”.

Analysis and suggestions such as those from José Vicente da Silva – in many aspects coinciding with other specialists – show that not all is lost, as the discouraging numbers from the IBGE report seem to suggest. Much has to be done and at a reasonable cost – in the short and mid run – to restrain the spread of crime.

Integrated actions

Paulo Mesquita, executive secretary of the São Paulo Institute against Violence – an organization that brings businessmen together and originated the Dial-Violence, through a partnership with the Public Safety Secretary -, is a scholar in crime issues.

To combat crime, he proposes a group of actions targeted at raising the level of efficiency in police prevention and investigation of crimes, as well as increasing the people’s trust in the institution.

In order to reach that goal he suggests investments be made in perfecting management within police organizations, internal and external affairs procedures, and creating information and statistical databases related to public safety and criminal justice, along with training the force units to produce, analyze, and utilize such data.

He also insists in the necessity to formulate federal, state, and local policies to prevent crime and improve public safety, in such a way as to integrate actions from federal, state, and local units, as well as to mobilize society.

He notes that, “community police, participative precincts, total quality, classes and training to limit and control the use of force, district courts, external oversight by the Department of Justice, accused law-enforcers brought to regular trials – for crimes committed in the line of duty – among others, are some of the positive actions adopted in many states in the past years to get better police work.”

Nonetheless, he points out, “the reach and impact of such measures are still very limited, practically unnoticeable to the majority of society.”

This article was published originally in Problemas Brasileiros.

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