Column by Scott Salmon
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazilian cities – and especially Rio de Janeiro – have a reputation for being dangerous places. It is a reputation well-deserved.
Until recently Brazil was home to 17 of the world’s 50 most homicidal cities and the world’s twelfth highest national homicide rate – worse than Colombia or the Central African Republic.
Not surprising then, that a nationwide drop in violent deaths – down 24 percent to ten, 324 in the first quarter as compared to the same period in 2018 – attracted the attention of local news outlets (including this one).
Brazilians, especially those near the firing line, are justifiably sick of high crime and murder rates. However, a closer examination of the statistics and their underlying causes reveals some startling facts.
Perhaps most alarming is the dramatic escalation in police killings. In Rio de Janeiro the Military Police are currently killing five people a day, accumulating a total of 434 in the first quarter of 2019 alone.
This qualifies as the most violent 90 days in recorded history according to the Rio de Janeiro State Institute of Public Security. Astonishingly, this figure does not include killings by the Civil Police.
Last weekend a video circulated on the internet showing Governor Wilson Witzel in a military helicopter hovering over Angra dos Reis announcing – over gunfire – an operation designed “to end once and for all this banditry that is terrorizing our marvelous city.”
Shortly afterward, CORE forces, from the Civil Police, circled Rio’s Maré neighborhood in helicopters firing down on residents. The operation, which coincided with local children leaving school, left eight dead.
These events reveal factors both new and unchanging beneath the latest homicide figures. At Governor Witzel’s encouragement, Rio police are increasingly using snipers – often airborne – to kill anyone suspected of carrying a weapon.
At the same time, the victims – disproportionately young, male, black, poor, and residents of the city’s favela communities – remain the same.
While this continues, we are witnessing a human rights atrocity unfold in our city. The military and police have declared war on an internal enemy.
Although Amnesty International and a range of human rights attorney’s have warned the Governor that these practices are illegal, he insists he will “defend them in court if necessary.”
Elsewhere, President Bolsonaro has been quick to highlight the national decline in homicide, but the causes may be more complicated (and less significant in the long term) than initial appearances suggest.
First, the data remains inconclusive, and more importantly, inconsistent. Some states seem to be witnessing a decline in homicide deaths; in others, it’s not yet clear whether there has been any change at all.
Unfortunately, for President Bolsonaro (and Brazil), several important drivers of change began well before he was elected and – more importantly – don’t seem to offer hope of permanence.
In 2017 a violent war erupted between Brazil’s most significant drug trafficking organizations, fueling a wave of killings and reprisals that spread from its prisons to its cities. By 2018, the First Capital Command had widely established dominance and – although war rages on in some places – a tenuous truce in the nation’s largest cities.
At the same time, the Temer administration instituted a range of measures, including the deployment of federal troops in several cities – 8,500 in Rio de Janeiro alone – and state prisons to restore government control.
Such initiatives undoubtedly suppressed violent crime – at least temporarily.
At first glance, the national reduction in homicide rates is welcome news. A closer examination suggests the data is inconclusive and that the trend may be temporary.
Most alarming of all are lethal precedents in state policing strategy – extrajudicial killings which may ultimately be judged crimes against humanity.