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.
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.
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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.
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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.”