A spatial analysis of homicides across Brazil shows intense clusters of violence around the country’s smaller cities and in rural areas, offering an insight into the importance of social factors as well as organized crime in driving violence in these regions.
An October 2014 report (pdf) by the Latin America Initiative of the Brookings Institution looked at six types of murder in Brazil, based on municipal statistics for 2011: aggregate homicides (see map), homicides of men, homicides of women, youth homicides, non-white homicides, and gun-related homicides.
By mapping out “hot” and “cool” spots for violence, the authors found that across the board, the most significant clusters of high homicide rates were seen in the northeastern states of Paraiba, Bahia and Alagoas, particularly around Paraiba state capital João Pessoa. Alegoas’ capital, Maceio, was also a violence hot spot for several of the homicide categories.
In various other spots along Brazil’s Atlantic Coast, as well as the central state of Para and the western state of Rondonia, large “red spots” also appeared for all categories. For three categories — aggregate homicides, men only, and non-white only — significant parts of Mato Grosso state, located between Para and Rondonia, were also hotbeds of violence.
For female homicides, fewer regions in the states identified above were found to be “hot” (see map), but an additional cluster of violence was seen in northwest Amazonas state, on the border with Colombia.
A small spot around the city of Rio de Janeiro saw extremely high rates of homicides for all categories except femicide, but this pattern was not repeated around Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo.
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The report’s authors conducted regression analyses to test the relationship between certain social factors — such as poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and large-scale development programs — and violence in the regions of concern.
Some of the findings were predictable: social marginalization and single-mother households were associated with high homicide rates, while the social welfare program Bolsa Familia was associated with lower rates.
Other results were less intuitive: higher male employment and better state capacity were also associated with violence. To explain this, the researchers suggested that increased employment can create more targets for crime, and that states may invest more resources in high-crime areas.
The study also found that development projects with a high environmental impact were linked to violence against women, and posited that this could be because the influx of temporary workers for these projects produces a rise in prostitution. The authors also noted that the area along the Colombian border is a problematic region for sex trafficking.
Based on the findings, the authors recommended prioritizing policies addressing marginalization, as well as further studies looking specifically at how investment to reduce marginalization can impact violence. They also discuss the importance of developing policies that target whole geographic areas — rather than just certain communities — tailored to the unique problems affecting populations in these areas.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Brookings Institution’s report focuses largely on the role of social factors in driving up homicide rates, but it is also worth considering the part that criminal groups play in this violence.
Many of the states highlighted as violence hotspots in the report have a significant presence of powerful criminal actors. For example, according to Brazilian police, the First Capital Command (PCC) gang now controls drug routes that pass through Rondonia and Mato Grosso — both of which have high concentrations of violence.
Northeast Brazil has experienced an uptick in crack cocaine consumption, as the market has spread from the major urban centers down south. As of 2012, the region was reportedly home to 40 percent of the country’s users of crack and other cocaine derivatives. The region is historically poor and under-resourced, but has experienced an economic boom in recent years. According to officials consulted by the New York Times, including Bahia’s governor, the influx of money has fomented drug trafficking and associated crime. This could help explain the Brookings Institution’s finding that higher employment is associated with higher violence.
Para state, which is covered in “hot” areas in the report, is a center of illegal logging and related land conflicts. More than half of deaths from such conflicts in Brazil were concentrated in this state in 2010, and state authorities have been criticized for caving to criminal interests and allowing impunity to prevail.
Meanwhile, official reports support the idea that the sex trade could help explain why higher violence against women was concentrated in different regions to other types of homicide. Amazonas — home to the “hot” zone for killings of women along the Colombian border — is the state that recorded the most cases of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in 2012 (pdf). It is also a key entry point for undocumented migrants, particularly Haitians. Nonetheless, neighboring Acre and Roraima also share similar characteristics, and very few clusters of violence were registered in these states, indicating that more factors are needed to explain the high levels of femicides in Amazonas.
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A focus on criminal groups does not, however, tell the whole story. It is notable that the Brookings Institution found that São Paulo state, home to what is arguably now Brazil’s most powerful drug gang, the PCC, registered no clusters of violence at all for aggregate homicides, while Rio’s red zone was quite small — mostly confined to the city itself. The clustering of high homicide rates in some of Brazil’s more remote regions also suggests that social factors are key in understanding high rates of violence.
The report complements a 2013 report by the Brazilian Latin American Studies Center (Cebela), which found that violent deaths in Brazil between 1980 and 2011 were largely attributable to a “culture of violence” fomented by state weaknesses and generalized impunity. It focuses on a handful of states in the same northeastern region where the Brookings Institution found the most “hot” zones. These included Rio Grande do Norte, Maranhão and Bahia, all of which saw large increases in homicides rates over the period. Para also saw a spike in murders attributed partly to these causes.
All these factors — social conditions, the presence of criminal groups, and justice systems — must be taken together to understand Brazil’s complex tapestry of violence.