Brazil's Crime Epidemic and the World Cup

As Brazil welcomes the world for the World Cup, all is not right at home, say Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabó de Carvalho.
By: /
June 12, 2014

Co-written with Ilona Szabó de Carvalho

Amid swirling controversy over the slow pace of World Cup preparations, Brazilians are still expected to put on a party. Yet hard as the Brazil's public authorities try to spin the mega event in a positive light—these are dark days for the country.

Brazil now faces the highest homicide rate in three and a half decades. According to recently release data, 56,000 men, women and children were violently killed in 2012. What is more, 15 of the world's 50 most dangerous cities are Brazilian. Predictably, recent polls indicate that security tops Brazilians agenda as the number one concern, ahead of education and health.

With all this terrible news, you might think the federal government is assembling a national strategy to change course. You would be dead wrong.

What is especially tragic is that the latest surge in lethal violence was entirely preventable. Between 2002 and 2009, homicide rates had steadily declined from around 28.9 to 25.2 per 100,000. But just before the start of President Dilma Rousseff's tenure in 2011, it began creeping up once again.

The spike in insecurity cannot be put down to some sort of cultural or biological attribute of Brazilians. It is an expression of a deep failure of policy. In particular, it can be traced to the federal government’s decision to systematically dismantle the country's public security architecture.

To start, the President cut funding for the national public security program known as PRONASCI shortly after her election. This resulted in fewer resources for reforming the country's police, reigning in impunity in its judicial sector, or fixing the country's appalling prisons.

It was not supposed to be this way. In fact, President Rousseff campaigned on a pledge to reverse Brazil’s astronomical homicide rate. She was committed to establishing a national plan to reduce the number of killings, especially in low-income settlements known as favelas, but her proposals were abandoned the year she assumed office.

Rather than focusing on domestic problems, she instead launched a new plan to bolster Brazil's defence industry, already the largest in Latin America. Her administration also introduced subsidies to the country's largest corporations to get on-board. Brazil is currently the second largest exporter of firearms and ammunition in the Western hemisphere, though many of these are also used at home.

Although the public is clamouring for a new approach to public security, the government does not appear to be listening. During massive street protests that paralyzed Brazil in 2013, insecurity was cited as among the top priorities by demonstrators. Yet President Rousseff's hastily assembled five point plan side-stepped the issue.

Even a previously existing federal program—Brasil Mais Seguro—has failed to register any improvements in citizen security, focused as it is on securitizing Brazil's border and prosecuting a war on drugs. And while the President insists that public safety is the responsibility of Brazil's 27 states, with a murder rate three times what the United Nations classifies as epidemic, the federal government cannot simply stand by and watch.

If Brazil is to avoid sliding into disorder, the issue of public safety and security must be at the heart of the October 2014 Presidential elections. The candidates should set out a minimum agenda that prioritizes improved access to information, police reform, a new approach to drug policy, and a reduction in homicides. The federal government must also assume greater responsibility and put a premium on saving lives.

It is a tall order. This will require structural reforms to the law enforcement, judicial and penal systems, including unifying national data collection systems so capital crimes can be identified and punished. The federal government should set clear standards and incentives for states to improve their record, and avoid slipping into an approach that favors repression over prevention.

Ultimately, if Brazil is to make a real dent on reducing lethal violence, the federal government must own-up to the sheer magnitude of the problem. Too often it refuses to acknowledge the scale of the issue on the home front while downplaying its serious challenges in international forums. This is a mistake.

Brazil actually has much to share the world about innovative ways to reduce violence through targeted policy interventions. New research by leading experts in several major Brazilian cities such as Belo Horizonte, Recife, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo illustrates just how improvements in security are possible. But if the country is to make a real dent on violent crime, the federal government must implement strategies that value life rather than pursuing the politic of inaction that have plagued the country in the run-up to the world’s premiere sporting event.

A version of this piece appeared in the Miami Herald on June 8, 2014