There are several reasons why more people are getting hit by stray bullets in Rio de Janeiro, a troubling phenomenon that's indicative of challenges involving the city's pacification strategy.

Last month alone, stray bullets injured an estimated 32 people in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro, O Globo reported. At least five people died, including a 4-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy. 

In the 1990s, stray bullets were a common problem in this Brazilian city, leading three-time former Mayor César Maia to call it the "tropical Bosnia." In the 2000s, that changed, and improvements in public security led to a decline in these incidents. From 2007 to 2011, the number of people in Rio state hit by stray bullets fell from 258 to 81

But in 2012, stray bullet injuries began to tick up again, and there were 111 cases in 2013, the latest available number from Rio's Public Security Institute (ISP). The ISP used to release quarterly numbers on stray bullet incidents, but has shifted to only publishing the number once a year, claiming fewer incidents as the reason for the change. And it's not just a local issue. A June 2014 UN report found that between 2009 and 2013, Brazil had the second highest number of stray bullet incidents in Latin America, after Venezuela

The surge in stray bullet incidents follows a similar pattern: last year, some violent crimes in Rio de Janeiro state rose in comparison to the previous year, according to the ISP. In 2014, homicides went up 4 percent, while pedestrian robberies jumped nearly 33 percent. Muggings increased by over 42 percent in the past decade. 

Insight Crime Analysis

Rio's so-called pacification strategy began in 2008, when the government started to install a permanent police presence in the city's favelas. Since then, 38 police pacification units (UPPs) were installed, benefitting some 1.5 million people. Initial results proved promising: between 2008 and 2012, lethal violence fell by 65 percent in pacified communities. In Rio state, homicides showed a downward trend from 2010 to 2012, although they began rising again in 2013.

Despite the expansion of the UPP program, police violence remains a problem. From 2013 to 2014, the number of people killed by Rio security forces surged by about 40 percent, ISP data shows. Last year, Rio police killed roughly the same number of people as did police in the whole United States. Similarly, being a police officer in Rio continues to be a risky profession. In 2013, 111 military police died, and 112 were killed last year, according to local media

However, Rio's top security official blamed the stray bullet problem on Brazil's porous borders. During a February 4 press conference, Rio de Janeiro state Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame attributed the rise in these cases to the large number of contraband weapons entering the country from Paraguay. He added that it's the federal government's job to address the border problem, which isn't a new one. In January, Rio's military police confiscated 41 rifles, more than double the amount apprehended the same month last year, while pistol apprehensions went up by nearly 50 percent.

Beltrame admitted that while Rio police face challenges, they shouldn't be blamed for the stray bullet incidents. Instead, the secretary attributed the majority of these shootings to Rio's "nation of criminals" who lack respect for human life and idolize weapons. He promised to keep up the state's pacification strategy, which continues its mission to end "drug traffickers' empires." He cautioned that while the police plan to enter new, unoccupied areas dominated by organized crime, the process won't happen all at once.

SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles

In addition to shootings involving police, conflicts between paramilitary militias and drug traffickers also cause outbreaks of violence. For example, confrontations between these two groups accounted for 80 percent of the 130 homicides that took place inmetropolitan Rio's Baixada Fluminense region last month, reported O Dia

Finally, some drug traffickers may be migrating to unpoliced areas after authorities install UPPs on their home turf. Security expert and former special operations police officer Paulo Storani abides by this theory, telling UOL that the stray bullet problem is primarily due to displaced criminal groups moving into new neighborhoods, and attempting to usurp other gangs.  "Many of these [stray bullet] cases originated in the dispute between rival factions," he said.

Mileni de Carvalho, mother of the 4-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet in Rio's West Zone in January, echoed this idea. "In countries at war like Afghanistan, fewer people die than they do here, because there is a constant war here that never ends," she told EFE. "They put police in the favelas in the wealthy neighborhoods, and the criminals all come here." 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts of the world as well). It refers to the sixth sense they have as they see a crime scene, investigate a murder or plow through the paperwork...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network. The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs.