Police are responsible for many killings in Brazil

A new study into violence in Brazil over the last 30 years suggests an array of social and economic factors have fuelled rising murder rates, with the growth of organized crime and the drug trade playing a peripheral role.

The Latin American Studies Center's (Cebela) Map of Violence 2013 analyzed government figures on violent deaths over 30 years to look at where and why Brazilians kill each other, as well as how often. It found while the murder rate overall has changed little during the last ten years, within different states it has changed dramatically.

Read full report here [pdf]

Contrary to popular belief, growth in organized crime and drug trafficking has not driven murder rates, according to the report. Instead, impunity and other institutional deficiencies have allowed a culture of violence to thrive, in which people murder each other for trivial reasons and go unpunished.

Across the entire population, homicides have risen 132 percent during the last 30 years, -- from 11.5 per 100,000 people in 1980 to 27 per 100,000 in 2011. Among those aged between 14 and 25 the rate in 2011 was around double that -- 53 per 100,000. Just over 200,000 Brazilians were murdered in the last four years of the study -- only slightly less than the number of deaths directly caused by the 62 armed conflicts that raged around the world between 2004 and 2007, when the Iraq and Afghan wars were in full swing.

Homicide rates in Brazil since 1980

"This magnitude cannot be attributed to the continental size of Brazil," said the study, pointing out the country's murder rate soared above that of the rest of the world's most populated nations. Across the nine other most populated countries, including China, Russia and the USA, the most recent annual murder rates range between 0.3 and 13.3 per 100,000, compared to Brazil's 27.4 -- the seventh highest among the 95 countries with collated figures. 

The study also examined geographical trends of violence within Brazil, noting dramatic jumps in murder rates in northeastern states as violence migrated out of the country's southeastern regions and biggest cities.

Murders in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro dropped 76 percent and 44 percent between 2001 and 2011, drops attributed to security investment in metropolitan areas, better policing and public disarmament schemes. Meanwhile, the murder rate in the state of Rio Grande do Norte quadrupled, and in the states of Para, Maranhao and Bahia the rates more than doubled, with the rate of increase accelerating in the last ten years. The study attributed this to an "incapacity and/or inefficiency in local security apparatuses to confront new environments of violence." 

When confined to the murders of young people only, the figures are even more startling. For people aged between 14 and 25, the murder rate in Alagoas state was 156.4 per 100,000, and a staggering 288.1 per 100,000 in state capital Maceio (compared to 111.1 per 100,000 for the total population). 

Across the whole of Brazil, researchers noted interesting changes during three distinct time periods when tracking the violence in state capital cities compared to other areas. From 1980 to 1996, the average murder rate across all Brazilian state capitals rose 121 percent, whereas the rate across the non-capital city region of all states -- what the report calls the "interior" -- rose by 69.1 percent. However for the subsequent seven years, the murder rate across capital cities barely changed, rising less than one percent, while in interior areas the rate rose by more than 30 percent. Finally, from 2003 to 2011 the capital cities murder rate fell steadily, dropping by almost a third, while in the interior regions it continued to rise steadily, growing by 23.6 percent in total. 

A similar pattern was noted between large and small cities -- between 2000 and 2011, murder rates dropped by a third across cities with more than half a million inhabitants, but grew by a fifth in cities with a population of between 100,000 and 200,000.

Homicide Rate History in Brazil's States

The study noted migration of violence coincided with a change in Brazil's development model, which saw industry formerly centered in São Paulo spring up in new economic hubs across the country, especially in the northeast and in small and medium-sized cities. 

It also looked at why people were killing each other, claiming organized crime and drug trafficking were not the major factors -- as is commonly assumed. Instead, there was a national and institutionalized "culture of violence" in which people committed murder for trivial reasons or on impulse -- during disputes with neighbors or spouses, or during incidents of road rage for example.

Impunity was also a major factor -- only five to eight percent of murders were ever solved, compared to 65 percent in the United States and 90 percent in the United Kingdom. There was a "tragic" tolerance of violence by state institutions, said researchers, and a tendency to criminalize and blame victims.

More than nine out of ten victims are men, and Afro-Brazilian young people are more than twice as likely to be murdered than their white counterparts. A report released by the World Bank in January, which also analyzed Brazilian violent crime figures, highlighted a murder rate for Afro-Brazilians in the northeast states (where there is a majority Afro-Brazilian population) of 375.2 per 100,000 in 2008, a major jump from an already extremely high rate of 185.7 per 100,000 in 2002. To put that into perspective, the most recent murder rate in the world's most violent city, San Pedro Sula in Honduras, is 176 per 100,000.

InSight Crime Analysis

The report highlights how a generally stable national murder rate over the last ten years masks how huge changes have taken place in the dynamics of violence in Brazil. The World Bank report made a similar point, noting how if the southeastern states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro were removed from the national average between 2003 and 2007, the homicide rate would have increased by 29 percent instead of declining by seven percent. The World Bank study also praised policing and investments in security in the southeast, such as gun control initiatives and programs for at-risk youth and in crime hotspots.

Like the Cebela research, the World Bank did not point to organized crime as a siginificant element affecting murder rates -- instead, identifying demographic and social developments, with changes in the numbers of young males in the population, changes in income inequality and changes in high school dropout rates as the most significant factors, in that order.

This contrasts with the common Latin American narrative that the boom in the international drug trade and organized crime over the last three decades is to blame for surges in violence across the continent (the world's 20 most violent cities in 2012 were all Latin American). While certainly true that international drug trafficking and the presence of transnational criminal organizations have had a major impact on the region, particularly in certain countries, the studies show that the roots of violence are often far more complex. Government management of the economy, justice and education systems, and demographic factors such as birth rates and income disparity, can be far more significant. 

Across the region, impunity and corruption play an absolutely crucial role in spurring and perpetuating cultures of violence, like the one described by Cebela. In Brazil, the lack of regard for life is sharply illustrated by kill rates within the country's own security forces -- police in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro killed 11,000 people between 2003 and 2009 -- one death for every 23 people arrested in 2008. In comparison police in the United States averaged one death per 37,000 people arrested that year.

In some countries, this impunity and corruption interacts with organized crime to devastating effect -- as in Mexico, where the horrendous escalation in violence of the past six years is largely related to organized crime. In others, not just Brazil but also countries like Venezuela -- where freely avaliable arms, weak institutions and a polarized society have contributed to record murder rates -- the interaction is far more complex.