Brazil: The Unsung Story of São Paulo’s Dramatic Murder Rate Drop

A police car from São Paulo, BrazilThe murder rate in the state of São Paulo has been cut in half since 2000. This will come as a surprise to many readers because there has been so much news coverage of brazen attacks by organized criminals on police stations and public transportation in São Paulo as well as in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities.

These attacks are intended to generate media coverage, embarrass officials and intimidate law enforcement. They disrupt the life of the community and threaten the forces of law and order. But the number of people killed in these attacks is very small compared to the mundane monthly toll of homicides that get little press coverage.

These attacks by organized crime are a response to police crackdowns that have put large numbers of offenders in crowded prisons and removed thousands of handguns from circulation. These police measures have substantially lowered homicide and some other violent crime rates, and have made life much safer for the average citizen or visitor to São Paulo.

The criminal homicide rate in the state of São Paulo reached 35.7 per 100,000 residents in 1999, according to official police data collected by the Secretaria de Estado de Segurança Pública. It had been increasing steadily since the mid 1980s. Then, with the dawn of the new millennium, there was a remarkable turning point.

The homicide rate turned down rapidly, reaching 15.1 in 2006. Preliminary figures for 2007 show a further decline. There was a parallel decline in the attempted homicide rate. The rate for negligent homicide (96% of which is automobile accidents) did not show a parallel decline. The decline was in willful, intentional murder and attempted murder.

The news was not as good everywhere in Brazil. Data from the Ministério da Justiça in Brasília shows a stable criminal homicide rate for Brazil as a whole from 2001 to 2005 (SENASP: 2005, 2006).

During this period, the rate declined only slightly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s other huge urban agglomeration. The fact that São Paulo did so much better than Rio and other cities suggests that policy measures implemented on the state level were responsible.

At 15 per 100,000 in 2005, the criminal homicide rate in São Paulo has not yet quite reached the levels achieved by New York City (7 in 2004). But it compares very favorably with the rates reported by Detroit (42), Baltimore (44) and Washington, D.C. (36) in the same year.

Criminological research has uncovered a number of important facts about murder in São Paulo:

* Men are both the offenders and the victims of most homicides; the rate for women is quite low.

* Most homicide victims are between 15 and 29 years of age.

* Most are killed with firearms; the average number of bullet wounds per victim is 6.9.

* Among those whose blood is tested, fewer than half are positive for alcohol, less than 1% for cocaine.

* Most occur on the weekend with the peak on Saturday and the lowest number on Wednesday.

* Most of the reduction in the homicide rate has been in the large cities, including the state capital.

The homicide decline in the state of São Paulo in the first decade of this century is similar to the decline in New York City in the 1990s. In both cases, the police adopted more effective methods. In São Paulo the state police forces gave new priority to gathering accurate and timely empirical data and using it to plan and evaluate programs.

An intergovernmental communications network was established to link the military and civil police. Crimes were entered into a geographic information system, and saturation units were sent to areas controlled by drug traffickers. A data base was established with photographs of over 300,000 criminals. Telephone switchboards were set up to receive citizen complaints of incidents, and a web site was opened to take reports of thefts of vehicles, documents and cellular telephones.

Community policing stations were opened, and a homicide combat unit was organized with an emphasis on solving difficult cases. A specialized unit was organized to provide supportive assistance to women who were victims of sexual crimes. Sophisticated computer software linked information from police reports with bank records, telephone records and probable areas of residence. And the police began more aggressive efforts to remove illegal firearms from the streets.

As a consequence of these efforts, the number of imprisonments in the state of São Paulo increased from 18,602 in the first quarter of 1996 to 30,831 in the first quarter of 2001, after which it settled back to approximately 23,000 a month. This increase in the number of convicts sent to prison each quarter of the year led to a steady increase in the state’s prison population. The turning point in the state’s criminal homicide rate came at the peak of this increase in imprisonments.

Gun control was another important factor in the crime drop. In October, 2003, the Brazilian federal government enacted a new set of laws to limit the importation of firearms, make it illegal to own unregistered guns or to carry guns on the street, and increase the penalties for violation of gun control laws.

Despite the failure of a national referendum in 2005 to ban commerce in arms and ammunition altogether, Brazilian gun control legislation is much stronger than that in most states of the United States. This legislation has helped to reduce homicide rates

Data from the Ministry of Health shows that firearms deaths in Brazil increased steadily from 1992 to 2003, then turned down significantly. The Ministry of Health data include all categories of gun deaths, including accidental deaths. The improvement was not consistent across Brazil, however.

Comparing 2003 to 2004, firearms deaths declined 19% in the state of São Paulo, 9.9% in the state of Rio de Janeiro, 14.5% in Pernambuco, and 20.6% in Mato Grosso. But they increased by 7.2% in Minas Gerais, 29.3% in Amazonas, 11.4% in Pará (Evolução da Mortalidade, 2007). The improvement in the statistics for Brazil as a whole can be largely accounted for by a very sharp drop in São Paulo which accounts for about 25% of the national firearm deaths.

Passing legislation is not enough, the legislation must be vigorously enforced by the state police forces. In the state of São Paulo, firearms confiscations by the police rose from 6,539 in the first quarter of 1996 to 11,670 in the second quarter of 1999. This peak coincides with the beginning of the great São Paulo homicide drop.

Firearms confiscations remained high through 2004, and then settled back to their previous level. São Paulo authorities believe that the decline in firearms confiscations after 2004 was because the new national legislation had increased the penalties for carrying firearms and fewer persons risked carrying them on the street.

Before the recent homicide drop, Brazil’s high homicide rates were frequently attributed to high levels of poverty and inequality. In a recent book, historian Luís Mir (2004) insisted that Brazil was in a state of civil war and characterized São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as metropolises of death. 

Mir insisted that "nothing can be done about the problem until the majority and the minority sit down and discuss the slices of the pie" that each social class receives (Geração Online, 2004). But his book was published three years after the homicide rates in São Paulo had begun their sharp decline, yet no such radical re-slicing of the socioeconomic pie had taken place.

The same thing happened to leading American criminologists James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio who published works in the early 1990s predicting massive increases in crime rates after the rates had already begun their precipitous decline.

These analysts erred by attributing cyclical peaks in crime waves to persistent social and economic problems, underestimating the extent to which violent crime has its own dynamics and can be treated as a separate problem. When crime waves get out of hand the public demands action, political leaders allocate more resources, and the criminal justice system does its best to respond.

In both Brazil and the United States, police authorities took effective action to reduce violent crime without waiting for underlying social problems to be resolved. This was also true in Colombia where homicide declined 15% in the three years from 2003 to 2006 (Casa de Nariño, 2006).

By contrast, homicide rates in Venezuela have increased 67% since 1999 (Romero, 2006) despite a booming economy and a populist government that claims to be redistributing wealth to the poor.

Success has many fathers, and there is enough good news in the São Paulo homicide drop to credit many of them. Most importantly, the great São Paulo homicide drop shows that effective measures can be taken to reduce lethal crime without waiting to solve underlying socioeconomic problems.


Ceccato, Vania. 2005. "Homicide in São Paulo, Brazil: Space-Temporal and Weather Variations," Estudos Criminológicos 3: 11-30.

Evolução da Mortalidade. 2007. Ministério de Saúde, "Evolução da Mortalidade por Violência no Brasil e Regiões,"

Gawryszewski, Vilma Pinheiro, Túlio Kahn and Maria Helena Prado de Mello Jorge. 2004. Homicídios no Município de São Paulo. Estudos Criminológicos 1: 4-12.

Geração Online. 2004. "Entrevista com Luis Mir."

Kahn, Túlio. 2004. "Homicídios Dolosos em São Paulo." Estudos Criminológicos 1: 15-32.

Kahn, Túlio. 2004b. "Segurança Pública e Trabalho Policial no Brasil," Estudos Criminológicos 2: 75-86,.

Kilsztajn, Samuel, et al. 2005. "Taxa de Homicídio por Setor Censitário no Município de São Paulo," Estudos Criminológicos 3: 1-10.

Marinha de Souza, et al. 2007. "Reductions in Firearm-Related Mortality and Hospitalizations in Brazil after Gun Control," Health Affairs 26: 575-584.

Mendonça, Mario. et al. 2003. "Criminalidade e Desigualdade Social no Brasil," Rio de Janeiro: IPEA. Texto para discussão número 967.

Mir, Luis. 2004. Guerra Civil: Estado e Trauma. São Paulo: Geração Editora, 2004.

Olsén, Örjan, et al. 2004. "Desemprego, Rendimentos e Crime: Um Estudo no Município de São Paulo. Estudos Criminológicos 2: 4-73.

Painel de Indicadores. 2006. "Determinantes Sociais de Saúde," Pp. 36-47 in Ministério de Saúde, Painel de Indicadores do SUS .

Romero, Simon. 2006. "As Crime Soars for Venezuela, Chávez Coasts." New York Times, December 2, 2006.

Saúde Brasil. 2005. "Análise da Tendência de Morte Violenta," pp. 591-639 in Saúde, Saúde Brasil.

SENASP. 2003. Secretaria Nacional de Segurança Pública. "Análise Comparativa do Número Total de Vítimas de Homicídio entre as 26 Regiões Metropolitanas – 1980 a 2002."

SENASP. 2004. Secretaria Nacional de Segurança Pública. "Mapa de Ocorrências no Brasil 2001-2003: Brasil, Unidades da Federação e Regiões Geográficas."

SENASP. 2006.. Secretaria Nacional de Segurança Pública. "Análise das Ocorrências Registradas pelas Polícias Civis (Janeiro de 2004 a Dezembro de 2005).

SESP. 2007a. Secretaria de Estado da Segurança Pública, Governo do Estado de São Paulo. "Estatísticas."

Souza, Maria de, et al. 2007. "Reductions in Firearm-Related Mortality and Hospitalizations in Brazil after Gun Control," Health Affairs 26: 575-584.

World Bank. 2006. Crime, Violence and Economic Development in Brazil. Washington: World Bank Report no. 36525.

Zimring, Franklin. 2007. The Great American Crime Decline. New York: Oxford.

Ted Goertzel, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He is author of a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. His WEB site is

Túlio Kahn, Ph.D., is Coordenador de Análise e Planejamento for the Secretaria de Segurança Pública in São Paulo. His research is available at:


You May Also Like

Telma, a character in Globo's Paraíso Tropical

Here’s Brazil’s New Audience Champion: Another Trashy Novela

Brazil has a new 9 pm novela (soap opera): Paraíso Tropical (Tropical Paradise). You ...

Brazil’s Painter of Happiness: Absolut Britto

He was born to a very poor family in Northeast Brazil, in the city ...

Among 11 Candidates, Dilma Has 38% of Votes for Brazilian Presidency

A poll conducted by Brazil’s Public Opinion and Statistics Institute (IBOPE) shows that candidate ...

A U.S. Foundation to Save Olinda, a Brazilian Treasure

The city of Olinda, a small historical town in Brazil, which is practically integrated ...

Brazil and Caribbean Abolish Visas for Their Diplomats

The governments of Brazil and Granada signed two cooperation agreements this Monday, April 24, ...

World’s Need for Brazil’s Ethanol May Unblock WTO Trade Barrier Talks

The World Economic Forum, which started yesterday, January 24, in Davos, Switzerland, will include ...

Dictatorship-Era Law Regulating Journalists in Brazil to Be Challenged

Reporters Without Borders is to challenge a ruling by Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice ...

Brazil’s Unemployment Rate Rises to 9.6%

Brazilian Latin American markets advanced, with Mexican shares posting some of the region’s biggest ...

Not Since the Dinosaurs Demise Species Had It So Bad, Say Experts in Brazil

Brazil announced plans to expand protection of the Amazon rain forest, as cabinet ministers ...

Brazil’s IRS and Elections Board Join Forces to Catch Corrupt Politicians

Brazil’s Federal Elections Board (TSE) and the Federal Revenue Department (SRF) will sign an ...